South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa enjoyed a sharp lead on Tuesday in the contest to become the leader of the ruling African National Congress party.

A majority of party regional delegates backed Ramaphosa ahead of an elective conference to be held in Johannesburg which will select a successor to ANC chief President Jacob Zuma between December 16 and 20.

Ramaphosa leads his closest rival, Zuma’s ex-wife and former African Union Commission chair Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, by 529 regional delegates according to a provisional official tally released on Tuesday. He currently has 1,859 pledges to her 1,330.

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They have been embroiled in an increasingly bitter proxy battle, with allies of the two trading insults and allegations in recent months.

The successful contender will go on to contest presidential elections in 2019 as the ANC candidate.

Other hopefuls include parliament speaker Baleka Mbete and presidency minister Jeff Radebe — although they are seen as outsiders.

There are 4,731 branch delegates in all who will make up roughly 90 percent of the votes that will be cast at the elective conference to pick a new leader.  

The remaining votes are reserved for delegates from the ANC’s Women’s, Youth and Veteran’s branches as well as provincial executive committee members. 

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Branch delegates can change their votes up until the conference.

Ramaphosa, 65, is a former trade union official turned successful entrepreneur who is the preferred contender of the business community.

They hope that he will be able to extricate South Africa from a spiral of high-unemployment, slow growth and soaring debt.

He will face-off against 68-year-old Dlamini-Zuma who previously held a string of ministerial posts and went on to chair the African Union Commission. Her detractors have suggested that she could shield her ex-husband Zuma from any corruption prosecution. He faces a slew of graft allegations and the possible reinstatement of 783 corruption charges related to a 1990s arms deal.

ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe sought to allay fears that divisions within the party could spill into the open at the elective conference.

“Contestation for leadership must strengthen the ANC rather than weakening it,” he said.

“We are working very hard to ensure that the conference is steady and successful.”

© Agence France-Presse