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 was to get underway on Sunday, with President Cyril Ramaphosa squaring off against his former health minister Zweli Mkhize.

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 observers said the race looked closer than expected, with local media reporting party delegates from several provinces had shifted support to Mkhize.

“We’re seeing Ramaphosa moving from enjoying a comfortable lead, to having Mkhize right behind him. It’s up in the air right now,” independent political analyst Pearl Mncube told AFP.

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

After 28 years in power, the African National Congress (ANC), which was shaped by Nelson Mandela to spearhead the struggle to end apartheid, faces deep rifts and declining support.

Its image has been stained by corruption, cronyism, nepotism and a lacklustre economic record.

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 corruption-tainted former president Jacob Zuma who was forced out by Ramaphosa.

”(Ramaphosa) is going to win, we know that. But because of Phala Phala, he must step aside,” said one of the disruptive delegates, Thami Chamane, 30, referring to the farm at the centre of the scandal engulfing the president.

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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.

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

A 66-year-old doctor by training, he is among those whose image has been tainted by corruption allegations that he denies.

As health minister, he was lauded for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, but his two-year spell ended abruptly when Ramaphosa replaced him in August 2021.

He was placed on special leave after investigators opened a probe into a 150-million-rand ($10.4-million) contract for a Covid awareness campaign.

Ramaphosa’s clean-hands image has also been dented by accusations he concealed a huge cash burglary at his farm in 2020, rather than report it to the authorities.

Portraying himself as a graft-busting champion, he took control of the ANC in 2017 after his then boss Zuma became mired in corruption allegations.

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

Ramaphosa, who denies any wrongdoing, won a reprieve ahead of the conference when the ANC used its majority in parliament to block a possible impeachment inquiry.

An ex-trade unionist, he fronted the historic negotiations to end apartheid in 1994 and helped draft the constitution – considered to be one of Africa’s most progressive charters.

Paul Mashatile, 61, the current party treasurer and acting secretary general, is seen as the leading contender for the role of deputy president.