THE news that Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe is willing to contest the ANC leadership - even if it means running against President Jacob Zuma - is sure to spark a lively debate both inside the ruling party and in society at large over which candidate is best suited to lead South Africa beyond 2012.
Luthuli House has been trying to put the lid on the battle for leadership of the ANC and has told party members they may begin talking about their preferred candidates only once the nomination process officially opens in October.
And this decision by the ruling party has worked in Zuma's favour. Everyone knows that Zuma, the incumbent, is eager to serve a second term as president of both the ANC and South Africa - but his likely challengers have been forbidden to raise their hands.
Although Motlanthe has always been bandied about as a possible candidate, many in the ANC have doubted that he has the appetite to challenge a sitting president.
It was widely believed that he would enter the fray only if Zuma decided to step down.
But as the ANC national conference, scheduled to be held in Mangaung, Free State, in December, draws ever closer, the deputy president's backers have realised that, by allowing the confusion over Motlanthe's intentions to linger, they are only harming his chances of winning.
Hence their decision to put out the word that South Africa's second-in-command would be available if nominated.
The ANC's leadership election system is far from perfect. In fact, it needs to be reformed urgently if the ruling party is to keep up with the demands of a modern democracy.
But, in the absence of such reforms, we should not wait until individual candidates officially declare their availability before discussing their suitability for the office.
As the debate over Motlanthe's fitness for duty within and outside the ANC begins, however, all involved should be careful not to turn this perfectly acceptable democratic process into an acrimonious political battle - a battle that would cripple the functioning of the state, as was the case when Zuma stood against then president Thabo Mbeki in 2007.