South Africa's ruling African National Congress is facing the greatest threat to its hold on power since the end of apartheid.
So deep is the anger over the sacking of Thabo Mbeki as the country's president by his own party last weekend that senior ANC members plan to launch a breakaway organisation of their own.
Mr Mbeki was forced to resign after nine years in office last weekend, when a late-night sitting of the ANC executive demanded his removal from office. It was the culmination of a long power struggle between Mr Mbeki and his more populist rival, Jacob Zuma, who successfully challenged him for the party leadership last year.
An interim president, Kgalema Motlanthe, was sworn in last week but is expected to be replaced by Mr Zuma when presidential elections are held next year.
But Mr Mbeki won 39 per cent of the vote in the ANC leadership contest -- though he is said not to be involved in the move -- and many of his supporters believe his ejection was a step too far.
An ANC source said that the announcement of a breakaway grouping could come as early as this week. "There are members of the ANC who are so unhappy as to contemplate -- and indeed have more or less decided -- that they are no longer able to be part of the prevailing culture," the source said. "For some time there has been a sense of unease for many members of the ANC. I think there will be some development in a short while. I don't think as an organisation we will be able to ride the energies we have released in the recent past."
A senior Western diplomat said that a split in the monolithic ruling party was "very, very likely". He named Mosiuoa Lekota, a former ANC national chairman who resigned as minister of defence last week, as a prime mover in the plan.
"Lekota is openly talking about a break," he said, adding that there was now "visceral hatred" within the ANC between the faction now in power, loyal to Mr Zuma, and some of those it has ousted.
The breakaway movement has been given extra impetus by Epainette Mbeki, the former president's 92-year-old mother.
"In plain language the ANC has dug its own grave," she said.
"Naturally people will say I'm defending my son. That's OK, but I'm speaking as an old ANC member. We all know that there was an attitude of revenge. I will support such a formation 100 per cent. The ANC has abandoned us."
Observers believe that the ANC's hold on up to four of South Africa's nine provinces could be threatened. Some ordinary ANC supporters are so disillusioned by the in-fighting that they say they will not back it at the general election due next year.
"You can't vote for an organisation that's not united, people are fighting one another, people have got grudges," said Edward Sume, 42, a security guard in Cape Town who has backed it at every poll since the end of apartheid.
Opposition leaders welcomed the prospect of an ANC split. Patricia de Lille, the leader of the Independent Democrats, forecast that the ANC might lose its two-thirds majority in parliament, which gives it the right to change the constitution. "It's another turning point in the history of our young democracy," she said. © Telegraph