Analysts and party insiders say South African President Cyril Ramaphosa's best chance of survival is that many in the governing African National Congress see him as the least objectionable nominee - both to investors and voters - in the 2024 polls, which could see the party lose its parliamentary majority for the first time since white minority rule ended nearly three decades ago.
ANC members will chose their party leader, and hence presidential nominee, in December. But the battle lines are being drawn now, with power blocks coalescing around candidates at gatherings to elect provincial party officials, and at a national policy conference last weekend.
Challengers include former health minister Zweli Mkhize, Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu and Duduzane Zuma, son of the former president Jacob Zuma.
"It's severely dented, but (Ramaphosa) still retains more trust than the other alternative political leaders," Susan Booysen, director of research at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection, said. "The alternatives would have to show they've got credibility."
The ANC has never been so unpopular.
Struggling state power company Eskom has imposed its worst power cuts in more than two years. Poor service delivery saw the ANC's support in municipal polls in November drop below 50% for the first time.
A looting spree a year ago and mass shootings in July highlighted police failures and yawning wealth inequalities.
And a $4 million heist at Ramaphosa's private farm in June raised questions about his vast wealth - awkward for a leader who won his ticket on a promise to clean up endemic graft.
Four ANC insiders said Ramaphosa's rivals are to varying degrees allied with his predecessor Jacob Zuma's faction, whose victory would be seen as a setback by investors in Africa's most industrialised economy. A judicial corruption inquiry pointed to systemic graft during Zuma's tenure in 2009-2018; he denies wrongdoing.
Zuma's faction recently captured the party leadership in the ANC strongholds of Mpumalanga and Kwazulu-Natal, shrinking Ramaphosa's provincial power base.
Some ANC members also favour Deputy President David Mabuza, who hasn't said he'll run but would automatically take over if Ramaphosa is forced out early.
"He's caught between paranoia and paralysis. There's that indecisiveness, lurching from thing to thing," Ebrahim Fakir of South Africa's Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute said.
Police are probing the origin of millions of dollars worth of foreign banknotes stolen from Ramaphosa's private farm for tax or exchange control irregularities. He says the funds are from game sales and has welcomed the investigation.
"Ramaphosa is in a very weak position because of this foreign currency found in his house," said Moeletsi Mbeki, deputy chairman of the South African Institute of International Affairs and a brother of ex-president Thabo Mbeki. "He has to account for why (it) was ... not in the bank."
If the ANC loses its parliamentary majority, it could force the party into an uneasy coalition. Several conference delegates told Reuters they still see Ramaphosa as their best bet.
"I don't see any other person who can rival him," Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi told Reuters.
Some analysts agree.
"Removing Ramaphosa would be a suicide mission. He is what has slowed down their decline," author and political analyst Ralph Mathekga said. "He's the most electable, and ... can help the party to survive."