The ANC insisted it would not try to stop dissidents from forming a new party ahead of elections next year, but underlined it would take action against members who support the new group.

“The practice of multi-party democracy accommodates the formation of new parties. This is at the core of democracy which many South Africans sacrificed their lives for during apartheid,” the ANC said in a statement.

“The ANC will not interfere with the (dissidents) from campaigning, holding a convention and forming a political party.”

But, the party warned that it will “take disciplinary action against any ANC member who mobilises for the formation of a new organisation in opposition to the ANC”.

The latest warning came as the dissidents, led by former defence minister Mosiuoa Lekota, announced that they would hold a rally on Thursday in Orange Farm, south of Johannesburg.

Organisers said they hoped to draw 4 000 people to the event, the first rally by the group in South Africa’s most populous and richest province of Gauteng.

The rally is one in a series leading up to a national convention set for November 2, when Lekota and other ANC heavyweights say they will lay the groundwork for a new party that could be launched in December.

The venue for the national convention has been moved from Bloemfontein to Pretoria as organisers were unable to secure accomodation for the 4 000 expected delegates.

Lekota and several of his allies were suspended from the party last week and now face expulsion from the ANC.

He and most of the other dissidents are loyalists of former president Thabo Mbeki, who was forced by the party to resign as the nation’s president on September 20, just months before the end of his term.

Mbeki himself has not made any public comments on the possible breakaway.