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A delegate stands near a banner during the 55th National Conference of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) at the Nasrec Expo Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Dec. 18.SIPHIWE SIBEKO/Reuters

South Africa’s ruling African National Congress delegates were engaged in last minute horse-trading as voting for a new party leader pitting President Cyril Ramaphosa against former health minister Zweli Mkhize began on Sunday.

The winner, who will run for president under the ANC banner in national elections in 2024, has been more or less guaranteed to become president in the nearly three decades since Nelson Mandela ended white minority rule in the country.

But this is no longer a certainty as the ANC’s popularity has waned over that period and the party faces the possibility of losing its majority for the first time.

More than 4,400 delegates at the ANC’s five-day conference in Johannesburg must decide which of the two candidates is best placed to revive its fortunes. On Saturday they nominated the two candidates ahead of Sunday’s vote.

Their supporters battled in a sing-off in the early hours of Sunday, with Ramaphosa’s backers holding up two fingers signalling a second term as leader. Mkhize’s supporters meanwhile were chanting “change” and “He (Ramaphosa) is not coming back!”

The ANC’s national spokesman Pule Mabe told reporters that the party would investigate allegations of vote buying by some delegates involved in last minute horse trading once they were formally reported to the ANC.

“We have to take action against individuals who do such,” Mabe said.

KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape and Limpopo are the three provinces with the highest numbers of voters, which will carry the biggest sway in the voting.

KwaZulu-Natal, with the most registered voting delegates, is backing Mkhize while the Eastern Cape and Limpopo are supporting Ramaphosa.

But members of certain ANC branches from all provinces were making last-ditch attempts to persuade delegates to vote for their candidates.

Ramaphosa had been the favourite to win until he came under pressure to step down over a scandal involving the discovery of a stash of cash at his farm. Ramaphosa has denied any wrongdoing and has not been charged with any crimes.

Mkhize’s backers include former president Jacob Zuma’s supporters, who are seeking to use the scandal to oust the incumbent. Ramaphosa suspended Mkhize over corruption allegations into COVID-19 tenders last year, charges the ex-minister denies.

Zuma also faces several corruption investigations relating to his nine years in office before Ramaphosa took over in 2018, all of which he denies.

The 4,426 delegates will also vote for the other top six ANC positions, which include deputy president and national chairperson.

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