(Bloomberg) -- The biggest voting bloc in South Africa’s governing party picked former Health Minister Zweli Mkhize as its candidate to challenge President Cyril Ramaphosa for leadership of the African National Congress.

The KwaZulu-Natal province is the first party structure to nominate someone other than Ramaphosa for the top party job before the ANC holds its five-yearly elective conference in December. Under ANC rules, the leader will be its presidential candidate in the country’s next national elections scheduled for 2024.

Mkhize, 66, quit the cabinet last year after he was named in an investigation into allegations of corruption. Law-enforcement agencies have denied that he is being actively investigated for any criminal act. Should he be charged before the December conference, he will immediately be disqualified from challenging Ramaphosa or seeking any other leadership position.

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KwaZulu-Natal may take about 866 delegates to the conference out of a total of more than 4,250. The leaders of six of the party’s 12 voting structures, which in addition to the nine provinces include the ANC’s youth league, women’s and veterans leagues, have expressed support for Ramaphosa.

Second Term

The level of support for Ramaphosa makes it unlikely that Mkhize will successfully prevent the president from securing a second term as party leader unless KwaZulu-Natal can convince other provinces to back him, said Lukhanyo Vangqa, an independent political analyst. 

“He will bring the biggest province in the ANC with him to conference, so on that basis you cannot underestimate him,” Vangqa said. “But the chances of him becoming president of the ANC are very slim at the moment.”

The ANC in KwaZulu-Natal is so far the only region to consult with party branches in the province before pronouncing on Mkhize, making it unlikely that their position will change before the conference. Other provinces, some of which are divided and have pronounced on their preferred candidates without consulting sub-structures, will make their decisions known in the coming months.

The choice of Mkhize also blunts a bid by Cooperative Governance Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, an ex-wife of former President Jacob Zuma, to lead the party. Dlamini-Zuma, who ran against Ramaphosa in 2017, has signaled her availability for the top ANC post, though she’s yet to be endorsed by any of the country’s provinces.

Deputy President

KwaZulu-Natal also chose ANC Treasurer-General Paul Mashatile as its candidate for deputy president of the party and Stanley Mathabatha as its chairman.

While Ramaphosa remains the odds-on favorite to win the party leadership race, his campaign has been threatened by an investigation into a burglary at a game farm he owns. It emerged in June that Ramaphosa had stored an undisclosed amount of foreign currency in furniture at his farm and the matter is under investigation by law-enforcement agencies, the central bank, parliament and the nation’s anti-graft ombudsman.

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The ANC is struggling to retain control of KwaZulu-Natal province, where it has lost significant support to opposition parties including the Inkatha Freedom Party. It’s likely to lose control of the economic hub of Gauteng in the 2024 elections.

Some opinion polls suggest support for the party nationally may dip below 50% in 2024, forcing the ANC to form a coalition government. Support for the ANC, which has governed South Africa since the end of White-minority rule in 1994, has waned as it struggled to address record high unemployment, inequality and a crippling energy crisis.

(Updates with political analyst comment from fifth paragraph.)

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