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Delegates sing and chant slogans during the second day of the ANC's national conference in Johannesburg on Dec. 17.GUILLEM SARTORIO/AFP/Getty Images

South Africa’s ruling African National Congress was nominating candidates for its leader on Saturday, inching closer to deciding whether President Cyril Ramaphosa or a rival will have its blessing to run for the country’s top job in 2024 elections.

After a fractious start to the gathering that saw Ramaphosa subjected to jeers, chants and calls to quit by opponents, delegates at the ANC’s five-day conference in Johannesburg were deciding on a shortlist of candidates for his job.

Ramaphosa himself and his main rival Zweli Mkhize, the former health minister, have already been nominated ahead of the conference, but additional candidates could go on the ballot if more than a quarter of conference delegates support any of them.

The ANC’s presidential candidate has been a shoo-in for the country’s top job ever since the party’s leading light Nelson Mandela ended white minority rule in 1994.

But the party is less popular than ever and faces the very real prospect of losing its majority in parliament.

Ramaphosa faces strong opposition from a rival ANC faction that is calling for him to step down over a scandal involving the discovery of a stash of cash at his farm. He has denied wrongdoing and has not been charged with any crimes.

The conference had been due to make a final decision on the candidacy on Saturday, but owing to delays and disagreements, by 23:45 local time (2145 GMT) on Saturday, the nomination process for deciding the candidates whom delegates can vote for was only just starting.

Ramaphosa has been the favourite to lead the party into elections in 2024, but his candidacy was called into doubt when an independent panel said last month he might have committed misconduct over the cash found at his farm during a robbery.

The discovery raised questions over how he had got the money, whether he had declared it, and why he had not reported it when thieves broke in and removed it from furniture.

The challenge

Ramaphosa’s political woes have galvanized supporters of former president Jacob Zuma, who is himself being investigated for allegedly colluding with three Indian businessmen to siphon off state funds during his tenure between 2009 and 2018, charges he denies.

The strongest challenger from Zuma’s camp is Mkhize, whom Ramaphosa put on special leave last year in the wake of allegations that his department irregularly awarded COVID-19-related contracts to a company controlled by his former associates. Mkhize denies wrongdoing.

“Discussions are ongoing, tradeoffs are ongoing … We are all interested to emerge here with a very solid … leadership,” ANC deputy presidential hopeful and Eastern Cape ANC Chairperson Oscar Mabuyane told reporters earlier on Saturday.

Ramaphosa’s allies, and even some of his rivals, on Saturday condemned opponents who disrupted his opening speech with chants and shouting at a conference of the ruling ANC on Friday.

“We must condemn (the disruption) because it’s not the behaviour of the ANC membership,” Siboniso Duma, chairperson of the KwaZulu-Natal provincial ANC, the single biggest power block trying to get Ramaphosa removed.

“You can’t just (make noise) when the president is speaking,” he told broadcaster Newzroom Afrika, reflecting a backlash over Friday’s disruption that some people said could leave the president stronger than he looked on Friday.

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