The national executive committee (NEC) of the ANC will start a watershed meeting on Friday to decide if president Thabo Mbeki should be removed from office.

The main discussion point at the three-day meeting will revolve around whether Mbeki should be asked to leave office or stay on until general elections next year. The African National Congress Youth League has called for his removal following a judgment that Mbeki may have been involved in a political conspiracy against ruling party leader Jacob Zuma.

Newspapers in South Africa were rife with speculation on Friday morning, some reporting that at least half of the cabinet would resign if Mbeki is ousted.

“Everything that has been said on this issue is through anonymous sources… it is very difficult to say [what would happen],” said Steven Friedman, director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.

Johannesburg’s The Star mornng daily reported that cabinet ministers loyal to Mbeki had vowed to go down with him. The Afrikaans Gauteng daily Beeld said although the top six leaders of the NEC believed that Mbeki should stay on, it is still expected that a recommendation that Mbeki should resign, would be tabled at the meeting. But Mbeki is a “master chess player who will fight until the end”, a source told the newspaper, which reported that those close to the president said he would not volunteer to resign.

This was in contrast to an article in the weekly Mail and Guardian, which said Mbeki had indicated to his colleagues in cabinet that he was prepared to step down. “I think he did that because he believes no one in the ANC leadership will have the guts to approach him,” the Mail and Guardian’s source said.

Business Day said it interviewed about 20 of the 80 NEC members and that many rejected a rescue plan for Mbeki. “It’s now or never… The NEC must be brave enough to stand up to Mbeki just like the Nats were when they stood up to PW Botha,” an NEC member said.

The political crisis in an already divisive ANC intensified after a judgment handed down in the Pietermaritzburg High Court last week. Judge Chris Nicholson declared the decision to prosecute Zuma on fraud and corruption charges invalid. Also in his judgment, Nicholson said he could not exclude the possibility that Mbeki was behind a political plot to oust Zuma.

The National Prosecuting Authority has indicated that it would appeal the judgment, a move that many believe further angered Zuma supporters in the ANC NEC.

If the NEC decides to remove Mbeki, several possible scenarios may follow. In the first scenario, Mbeki agrees to resign and the National Assembly elects a new president. But only members of parliament may be elected and Zuma is not an MP. In option two, Mbeki refuses to resign. Then a two thirds majority vote in parliament is necessary to pass a motion that he is not fit to hold office.

If the majority vote is achieved – which might be difficult because there are many Mbeki supporters in parliament – the National Assembly elects a new president.

The third scenario is a vote of no confidence in the sitting government. In that case, a general election has to be called and a caretaker government acts in the meantime.