THE fierce battle to oust former president Thabo Mbeki and his allies at the ANC's seminal December 2007 national conference in Polokwane brought together into an alliance two broad, but diametrically opposed, groups.

THE fierce battle to oust former president Thabo Mbeki and his allies at the ANC's seminal December 2007 national conference in Polokwane brought together into an alliance two broad, but diametrically opposed, groups.

Both groups wanted Mbeki out. For very different reasons, both groups rallied behind Jacob Zuma in his battle with Mbeki, and so lifted him into the presidency.

Both groups surfed the wave of discontent among the ANC rank and file and ordinary South Africans over Mbeki's dismissive, aloof and conspiratorial government.

Zuma also turned the grass-roots anger in his favour by equating his own dismissal by Mbeki with the general marginalisation of the grass-roots by the Mbeki leadership. Both groups, including Zuma, successfully used the popular discontent to their advantage.

Ordinary ANC supporters expected the dividends of the democracy - jobs, houses and a crime-free environment - to accrue to them also, not only to a small elite, whether black, associated with the ANC leadership, or white, the apartheid elite, who are doing as well in the democratic dispensation.

Within the Zuma coalition one group saw the wave of discontent among the ANC rank and file as a genuine cry for the ANC and government to become more transparent, accountable and pro-poor.

This group wants all the corrupt, unaccountable public representatives to be brought to book and for service delivery to be speeded up, and for the ANC itself to be modernised into a more internally democratic organisation.

They are the new modernisers. Some were opposed to the Left, rallying behind Zuma in the first place, but "pragmatically" accepted Zuma as a conduit or transition point for the modernisation of the ANC post-Polokwane.

Yet, the other group, within the coalition, used the rhetoric of transparency, accountability and pro-poor policies, to grab power for personal, factional and ethnic reasons.

This group also wants to purge all levels of government of public representatives, not necessarily because of mismanagement or corruption, but to take their place and become rich themselves. They have a very narrow view of democracy, and basically want things to remain the same as under Mbeki the only change being that they and their allies are now in charge.

This group's intentions were to replace the Mbeki-connected elite: their luxury cars, large VIP entourages with bodyguards and hangers-on, access to tenders and senior positions.

This group is careful to colour their purges under the flag of wanting to get rid of corrupt, uncaring, loyal Mbeki supporting public representatives. This group could be called the opportunists.

Polokwane was not an ideological battle between the left and the right wings of the ANC.

Among the opportunists were people with impeccable Left credentials, who had attacked Mbeki from the left flank, and had called for the democratisation of the ANC, independent institutions and government.

Now that Mbeki and his allies have been overthrown, both groups are pressing Zuma for change - often diametrically opposed change.

The crisis of conflicting claims is played out at local level in the current wave of protests against poor government service delivery.

Some people genuinely want change at the local level; want corrupt local councillors, and local ANC leaders and indifferent public servants to be brought to book.

Others just want to replace them, and want their turn at the feeding trough. The battle is going on across government. In some instances, departmental directors-general, boards and chief executives of parastatals and democratic institutions are under pressure.

Again, some want to genuinely bring new accountability to institutions by appointing a better calibre of persons to lead institutions. Yet others only want themselves, their friends, in the pound seats.

The extraordinary early discussion among some sections of the ANC to have the top six leadership, including ANC general secretary Gwede Mantashe, replaced, or re-elected in 2012, yet, the new government has hardly found its feet, is a manifestation of the battle for supremacy between the opportunists and the new modernisers.

These two groups have uncomfortably stood next to each other in their fight against Mbeki. Now that Mbeki is gone, the glue that held them together is also gone.

How Zuma will walk the tight-rope between these opposing groups within his coalition will define his legacy to posterity.

Taking the side of the genuine democrats in every coming conflict will be politically risky for Zuma. It could mean unravelling his coalition and creating new enemies.

Furthermore, in the most extreme scenario, this battle between modernisers and opportunists, unless creatively resolved, might also split the ANC.

Zuma strategists may calculate the safe solution would be to strategically please every group just enough: to on occasion give concessions to one group; and on other occasions, to the other group.

This will mean that the cause of democracy will in some instances be boosted, and in other instances undermined. This will also mean that the Zuma coalition remains together in an uncomfortable embrace. The outcome of this compromise scenario may mean muddled policies to please both sides.

The one danger is that the battle between these opposing groups, could keep government in paralysis and Zuma's presidency in a continual logjam.

This moment calls for clear vision, decisive leadership and democratisation of party and government. The better response, in terms of long-term consolidation of democracy within the ANC and the country, is for Zuma to take the side of democracy at each and every internal conflict of the ANC.

Yet, it will create formidable enemies for Zuma and may lead to him staying on for only one term, or even less, in government. Yet, this strategy will seal Zuma's legacy as a democrat, and rescue the ANC's democratic legacy.

l Gumede is author of Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC