ANC members have nominated Jacob Zuma as their choice to lead the party, but the cloud of prosecution over him still hovers

There was a certain measure of hopelessness and despair in Smuts Ngonyama's voice this week when asked whether it was all over for his boss, Thabo Mbeki and his long stint at Luthuli House as ANC president.

There was a certain measure of hopelessness and despair in Smuts Ngonyama's voice this week when asked whether it was all over for his boss, Thabo Mbeki and his long stint at Luthuli House as ANC president.

He mouthed the official line: that it wasn't all over, that there remained a fighting chance. But the sense of defeat was unmistakable.

Mbeki was more combative in his interview with the SABC later, saying that he would not give up, expressing some dismay in particular at the decision taken by the ANC Women's League to nominate Jacob Zuma, despite his arch rival's sullied record of behaviour towards women.

It must be remembered that Mbeki rose to power with the crucial support of two people - the late ANC youth leader Peter Mokaba and the then-ANC Women's League president Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

Now the membership of the two organisations Mokaba and Madikizela-Mandela once headed are opposed to him, so the situation doesn't look good.

So will Mbeki go quietly? The evidence of his history says he won't easily take up the role of the retired "black Englishman" and retreat to his study, with his beloved books and pipe, to write his memoirs.

"It's going to get very dirty from now on in to Limpopo," a former MK operative remarked shortly after the results of the nominations flowed in, which left Mbeki trailing Zuma by a massive margin.

It's abundantly clear that Mbeki will fight back. Not for nothing is he known as the "national interferer", "the quick weasel" and "the seducer", as Mark Gevisser points out in his unofficial Mbeki biography, The Dream Deferred.

These names refer to the various methods Mbeki has used in the past to get his way: how sly and devious he can be, and also how charming.

So what exactly can happen in the run-up to and during the Polokwane conference?

The most obvious event is that Zuma is charged with corruption before Polokwane. But this seems increasingly unlikely because there is the Constitutional Court challenge that Zuma launched this week in connection with the Scorpions' corruption investigation against him.

The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) has already indicated that it wants all the loose ends wrapped up before it brings the Zuma case to court. This means in all likelihood that Zuma will be charged sometime next year.

However, speculation is rife that Zuma may be charged when he comes back from overseas.

But whatever the time-frame on the charges, it's clear that Zuma's rise to power is not going to be easy.

He will have to stand down if he is charged; there can be no doubt about that, no matter what ANC youth leader Fikile Mbalula or Cosatu's Zwelinzima Vavi say.

If he is not charged before Polokwane, then Mbeki and his people have a great deal of work to do to convince delegates that Zuma is a bad choice, a move that will undoubtedly fail because ANC delegates certainly would feel that it's a mere ploy and further manipulation from a man who is known for his backroom dealings.

So what is likely to happen? It seems Mbeki and his people will continue to lobby, fail, and be embarrassed in Polokwane. He will then be forced into doing what he should have done in the first place: let go, allow Zuma to take the presidency of the ruling party, and allow the law to take its course.

Mbeki is letting his ego get in the way, believing he is the saviour of the ANC, the only one who can save the party, and thus the country. There is a long way to go before the 2009 elections. In all likelihood Zuma is not going to make it till then.

If Zuma is corrupt as some people say he is, he is going to have a short-lived victory and stay in the president's office at Luthuli House. In this scenario, the ANC membership will get what they deserved, which may just be a necessary wake-up call for the organisation.

Zuma certainly won't have an easy time from the media and civil society organisations if it is found he has had his hand in the arms deal cookie jar. If he is incompetent, as Mbeki's people have tried to portray him, he will get the same treatment.

On the other hand, if he isn't guilty, then certainly we will all be saved from having a crook as our president.

All good and bad things come to an end, someone once said, and so it will be for the man who has run this country for the past 15 years, as deputy to Nelson Mandela and finally as president of the country for two terms.

This is not an obituary for the much loved, and much hated Mbeki, because despite his shortcomings, his experience and wisdom will undoubtedly be expressed in some or other form. Perhaps like the foundations or charitable work that former leaders are so fond of.