Cyril Ramaphosa, 70, is expected to be confirmed as party leader despite a race that looks closer than expected

Johannesburg (AFP) - Voting to elect a new leader of South Africa’s ruling party started late Sunday, with the race tightening between President Cyril Ramaphosa and his former health minister Zweli Mkhize amid warnings against “divisive” vote buying.

Ramaphosa, 70, is expected to be confirmed in the role that opens the way to being head of state, despite a damaging cash-heist scandal and vociferous internal opposition.

But the race looked closer than previously expected Sunday, with reports of party delegates from several provinces shifting support to Mkhize, who Ramaphosa replaced at the peak of the pandemic for alleged malfeasance involving Covid funds.

More than 4,000 delegates began casting their ballots to appoint seven top leadership roles, including party president, deputy president, chair and secretary general, at a conference near Johannesburg.

Rifts in the African National Congress (ANC), which was shaped by Nelson Mandela to spearhead the struggle to end apartheid, are deepening, and support is declining after nearly three decades in power.

The five-day conference has further exposed those divisions with allegations of vote-buying, and horse-trading ahead of the vote.

The practice “can be divisive” said party spokesman Pule Mabe, adding “there is a commitment on our part to deal with the notion of vote buying”.

The election, originally scheduled to take place on Friday, is closely watched. The winner of the ANC presidency will be expected to ascend to the national presidency in 2024 polls.

Results are now expected early Monday morning, a senior party elections official said.

Ramaphosa had been tipped to win the vote comfortably, but “it’s up in the air right now,” independent political analyst Pearl Mncube told AFP.

He first emerged as the ANC leader in a tightly-fought 2017 race after his then boss Jacob Zuma became mired in corruption allegations, vowing to be a graft-buster.

But his clean-hands image has been dented by damning accusations he concealed a huge foreign currency cash burglary at his farm in 2020, rather than report it to the authorities.

He won a reprieve ahead of the conference when the ANC used its majority in parliament to block a possible impeachment inquiry.

- Second term? -

His sole rival Mkhize hails from the same province as Zuma, the southeastern KwaZulu-Natal, which has the largest number of party delegates.

As health minister, the 66-year-old medical doctor was lauded for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

But his tenure ended abruptly when he resigned amid allegations his son and associates benefited from a 150 million rand ($10.4 million) contract for a Covid awareness campaign. He vehemently denies any wrongdoing.

The image of the 110-year-old ANC has been fractured, and stained by corruption, cronyism and a lacklustre economic record.

An organisational report presented at the conference showed that party membership has dropped by a third over the past five years.

Some of those divisions played out in the open at the conference that opened on Friday, with Ramaphosa heckled by some delegates before his opening address.

Much of the disturbance came from supporters of Ramaphosa’s political rival and corruption-tainted former president Zuma.

Chants, shouting and celebratory dances also marked the process to confirm all nominations in the early morning, with senior party officials repeatedly calling for order.

Some local media reported party delegates from several provinces had shifted support to former health minister Zweli Mkhize

Some delegates rolled their hands as a sign for “change” while others made the number two with their fingers in support of a second term for Ramaphosa.

Chants, shouting and celebratory dances also marked the process to confirm all nominations in the early morning

But some Ramaphosa supporters are unbowed.

“We are saying Ramaphosa for a second term, he has done very well under very difficult circumstances in the first term,” said Elton Bantam, a delegate from the Eastern Cape province.