South Africa's ruling African National Congress nominated just two candidates to run for its top job on Saturday, leaving President Cyril Ramaphosa facing the health minister he suspended over corruption allegations in a party vote.
The winner will have the ANC's blessing to run for president in 2024 elections under its banner, historically a shoo-in for the country's top job ever since the party's leading light Nelson Mandela ended white minority rule in 1994.
The ANC's five-day conference in Johannesburg has exacerbated a rancourous divide between its two main rival power blocs, one coalescing around the incumbent Ramaphosa and the other around former President Jacob Zuma.
Former health minister Zweli Mkhize, who emerged as the sole challenger to Ramaphosa, is allied to Zuma's faction. Ramaphosa put Mkhize 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, who also ran against Ramaphosa when the latter won the position in 2017, denies wrongdoing. Both had been nominated ahead of the conference, and no additional candidates were added from the floor as nominations were concluded around midnight on Saturday.
After a fractious start to the gathering on Friday, which saw Ramaphosa subjected to jeers, chants and calls to quit by opponents, delegates at the ANC's conference must decide which candidate is best placed to revive its fortunes.
The ANC is less popular than ever and faces the very real prospect of losing its majority in parliament.
Ramaphosa's opponents want 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.
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.
MKHIZE AND THE ZUMA FACTION
Ramaphosa's political woes have galvanised supporters of former leader 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.
Investors fear a return of Zuma's power bloc could threaten reforms Ramaphosa has made to try to clean up grand corruption associated with his predecessor, already under strain because of the farm money scandal.
Mkhize was always the strongest challenger from Zuma's camp -- the other main ones, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a Cabinet minister and Zuma's former wife, and Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu did not qualify to be on the ballot.
Ramaphosa's allies, and even some of his rivals, on Saturday condemned opponents who disrupted his opening speech with chants and shouting at the conference on Friday, which may play in his favour.
"We must condemn (the disruption) because it's not the behaviour of the ANC membership," said Siboniso Duma, chairperson of the KwaZulu-Natal provincial ANC, the single biggest power bloc 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.