JOHANNESBURG (AFP) – Thousands of delegates from South Africa’s ruling ANC party prepared yesterday to elect their next leader in a vote widely seen as a decisive moment in the country’s post-apartheid history.
The front-runners in the tight race are Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, a wealthy businessman, and former minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who is President Jacob Zuma’s ex-wife.
With public support for the ANC falling sharply, the party which has ruled since 1994 when Nelson Mandela won the first multi-racial vote, could struggle to retain its grip on power in the 2019 general elections.
“We hope to start voting at some point this afternoon and the results will be out possibly tomorrow morning,” ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte told reporters.
Mr Ramaphosa received a significant boost late Saturday when he was publicly endorsed by influential ANC chairwoman Baleka Mbete.
There are more than 4,700 delegates attending the conference just outside Johannesburg which got off to a late start due to disputes over which delegates are qualified to vote, and further challenges may be lodged.
Mr Zuma, whose reign has been marred by graft scandals, will step down as ANC chief at the meeting but will remain as head of state ahead of the 2019 vote.
In an address on Saturday, Mr Zuma appealed for unity in a party riven by bitter factions, and blamed the decline in the ANC’s popularity on “perceptions in society that we are soft on corruption, self-serving and arrogant”.
“Petty squabbling… needs to take a back seat,” he said. “Our people are frustrated when we spend more time fighting among ourselves instead of solving the daily challenges they experience.”
But his speech drew only weak applause in sharp contrast with the raucous dancing and singing in support of those seeking to replace him.
Mr Zuma is seen as supporting Ms Dlamini-Zuma, who may protect him from prosecution over graft charges.
Some analysts say the contentious leadership battle could end up splitting the party.
The ANC is still South Africa’s biggest party by far, but the 54 percent it won in local elections last year was its worst poll result since 1994.
In opposition, the Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters are hoping to exploit the ANC’s woes in the 2019 election, with one possible outcome being a coalition government.