Thousands of delegates from South Africa’s ruling ANC party cast secret ballots Monday to choose their next leader after repeated delays to a vote seen as a decisive moment in the country’s post-apartheid history.
The only two candidates 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.
The winner will be well-placed to be the country’s next president in the 2019 general election.
Voting started soon after midnight on Sunday and continued through Monday morning after repeated delays due to disputes over which delegates were qualified to vote, with hundreds of attendees banned from the poll.
By Monday morning, most of the 4,776 delegates had cast their ballots.
The result was expected later in the day, though it was unclear how long counting would take.
Despite allegations of delegates being targeted with bribes, ANC spokesman Khusela Sangoni told reporters that the process was “proceeding smoothly”.
On Sunday, rival supporters sang and chanted in the conference hall outside Johannesburg as the vote was repeatedly postponed as arguments raged over delegates’ credentials.
“I have not slept for the past 24 hours, but I don’t care,” said Patience Nomodi, 62, a party member for 40 years, wearing an ANC blanket on her shoulders and walking with a yellow walking stick.
“I want a woman to be president before I die.”
Ramaphosa-supporting delegate Siya Kolase told AFP after voting early Monday that he was confident his candidate would emerge victorious.
“He will address the issue of corruption. He is going to stabilise our economy,” Kolase said.
The ANC, 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 election due to falling public support.
Zuma, whose rule has been marred by graft scandals, will step down as party chief at the conference but will remain as head of state ahead of the 2019 vote.
In his farewell address, 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”.
Zuma is seen as backing Dlamini-Zuma, who may protect him from prosecution over multiple graft charges.
Senior ANC officials are divided between Dlamini-Zuma and Ramaphosa, and analysts say the 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.
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.
Darias Jonker, director of the London-based Eurasia risk consultancy, said Dlamini-Zuma could win due to vote-buying.
“Zuma’s patronage faction will be able to buy the remainder of the votes needed due to their experience in doing this in the past (and) access to cash,” he said, adding the conference could still be adjourned or disrupted.