South African media have leapt onto reports - later denied - that trade unionist turned businessman Cyril Ramaphosa was back in the running to lead the ANC and perhaps the country. South African writer William M Gumede examines where Mr Ramaphosa fits into the race to succeed Thabo Mbeki.
When South African business tycoon Cyril Ramaphosa steps out in public, he is often besieged by South Africans of all colours and political stripes - ANC supporters and opponents alike.
Chairman of Shanduka Group
Market influence estimated $20bn
Major player in resources, energy, property, financial services
Leading black economic empowerment company
Shanduka Foundation has pledged $15m in social investment. Most of them have only one question: is he going to make himself available as a candidate for the presidency of the ANC next year, and, if he wins, the leadership of the country in 2009?
He usually brandishes his trademark warm laugh, and replies: "But I'm quite happy doing what I'm doing" - meaning business.
This week, he dismissed Sunday newspaper reports that he had put his name forward as a presidential successor.
But the possibility of a President Ramaphosa has been on the cards for as long as South Africa has been a democracy.
Shortly after Nelson Mandela became president in 1994, he recommended to the ANC inner circle that his presidential successor should be Cyril Ramaphosa.
The suggestion was declined. The group of former exiles who were then very powerful in the party were adamant that Mr Mandela's successor be drawn from among them.
They insisted on Thabo Mbeki, the heir named by former ANC leader-in-exile Oliver Tambo on his deathbed.
Ramaphosa was Nelson Mandela's first choice as successorMr Mandela then proposed constitutional amendments that would see Mr Ramaphosa - who cut his teeth in the domestic wing of the ANC - becoming the prime minister under an Mbeki presidency.
But Mr Mbeki and his supporters did not want a serious rival so close to the throne.
'I'll be back'
The result was that Mr Ramaphosa left politics for business, to the disappointment of Mr Mandela and his legions of supporters.
In parting, a visibly sad Nelson Mandela, said Mr Ramaphosa was still young (he is now 53) and could still succeed Mr Mbeki.
Mr Ramaphosa then promised he would be back in 10 years. Those 10 years have now passed.
Mr Ramaphosa was the ANC's chief negotiator during the constitutional negotiations with the National Party government that brought legal apartheid to an end.
He was also the architect of South Africa's constitution-making process.
Thabo Mbeki's presidential term ends in 2009He cut his teeth in the trade union movement, where he was general secretary of the biggest and richest trade union in Africa, the National Union of Mineworkers.
He has remained a member of the ANC's highest decision making body, its national executive committee.
In 2001, Mr Mbeki accused him and two other ANC grandees and Mbeki rivals, Tokyo Sexwale and Mathews Phosa, of plotting to oust him as president.
Following the fallout - and a subsequent apology from Mr Mbeki - Mr Ramaphosa and Mr Mbeki struck a secret pact.
Part of the pact, according to close associates of both men, was that Mr Mbeki would not stand in Mr Ramaphosa's way, if he decides to stand as a candidate to succeed the president.
The irony is that Mr Ramaphosa, despite his early bitter fallout with Mbeki over who should succeed Mr Mandela, shares the same economic and social policy views as Mr Mbeki, although he has a more inclusive, participatory and warmer leadership style.
Mr Ramaphosa has gone out of his way to endorse Mbeki's economic policies, although he has been critical of his unorthodox views on the causes of Aids and his quiet diplomatic approach to the problems in Zimbabwe.
However, Mr Ramaphosa's main obstacle will be to overcome negative perceptions that black economic empowerment, of which he is a major beneficiary, has only empowered a small elite who rarely plough their newly-found riches back into their communities.
Ramaphosa made his name as a trade union leaderHis insistence this week that he was not interested in the ANC presidency should not be taken as a definite "no".
Mr Mbeki said the same thing just before he became president.
And if you asked Jacob Zuma if he was interested in becoming president of the ANC, he would also say no - despite the fact that he is running a very public campaign for the position, backed by some powerful factions within the ANC and its allies.
Even current Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka - Mr Mbeki's protégé and the woman he desperately wants to succeed him - says she is not interested in the top job.
To get ahead in the ANC, one does not openly state one's ambitions, but rather feigns humility.
However, historically the ANC presidential election has usually only been decided at the conference itself, with Mr Mbeki's election being the main exception to the rule.
Mr Ramaphosa, as one of the ANC's most accomplished strategists, knows that.
It does appear that the "leak" to South African newspapers over the weekend about Mr Ramaphosa's entry into the presidential succession race, is likely to have come from his opponents, who want to draw him into the rough and tumble of the race sooner rather than later.
Zuma's divisive campaign tactics could backfireThis way, they hope that by the ANC's conference in December 2007, the glitter would have gone out of his campaign.
It appears that ANC members - even some of those who support Mr Zuma - increasingly accept that a Zuma presidency could tear the ANC apart, and potentially lead to the break-up of Africa's oldest liberation movement.
Something similar happened to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in 1997: she was popular, but ANC grassroots members feared her ascendancy would cause even more division and she lost out.
Indeed, judging by the divisions already caused by Mr Zuma's presidential campaign, he is unlikely to be able to unite the ANC, let alone build confidence in South Africa, at the moment when the country has finally reached economic take-off.
Come the ANC's December 2007 conference, members will most likely want to opt for a compromise candidate, who has not been part of the acrimony, smears and mudslinging that have accompanied Mr Zuma's attempts to stake his claim.
Cyril Ramaphosa, as astute as he is, probably knows that.
William M Gumede is author of Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC.
BBC NEWS REPORT.