S.Africa's ANC party wrestles over choice of new leader

Johannesburg (AFP) –


Thousands of delegates from South Africa's ruling ANC party prepared Sunday 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.

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.

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.

- Party split? -

In an address on Saturday, 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.

Zuma is seen as supporting 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.

- 'Opportunity for change' -

Soaring unemployment and state corruption have fuelled frustration at the ANC among millions of poor black South Africans who face dire housing, inadequate education and continuing racial inequality.

Dlamini-Zuma, 68, headed the African Union commission until earlier this year and is a former interior, foreign affairs and health minister.

Her critics have warned she will pursue Zuma's failing economic and political policies.

The couple had four children together before divorcing in 1998.

Ramaphosa, 65, a former trade union leader, led the historic negotiations in the 1990s to end apartheid before launching a business career that made him one of the country's wealthiest men.

He is often accused of failing to confront Zuma while serving as his deputy since 2014.

Mbete said she endorsed Ramaphosa to boost "unity in the organisation" before the 2019 election.

Ben Payton, an analyst at the global risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, said Ramaphosa was well-positioned for victory but Dlamini-Zuma "remains within touching distance of an upset win".

"The conference provides an opportunity for the party to change direction after eight years in which the economy has flatlined, increasingly extreme rhetoric has scared off investors, and corruption has overwhelmed public finances," he said.