By Ed Stoddard and James Macharia
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - The African National Congress expects to announce the successor to President Jacob Zuma as party leader on Sunday when ANC delegates elect a new figurehead for the movement that has ruled South Africa since the end of apartheid.
The vote is crucial because whoever emerges at the helm of the 105-year-old liberation movement that has electoral dominance in Africa's most industrialised economy is likely to become South Africa's next president after elections in 2019.
After lengthy delays on the first day of the ANC conference on Saturday, the leadership contest was still too close to call, with most grassroots ANC members backing Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa or Zuma's preferred candidate, his former wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, 68.
Ramaphosa, 65, got the majority of nominations from party branches scattered across the country. But the complexity of the leadership race means it is far from certain he will win when the votes are finally counted.
The election is perhaps the most pivotal moment for the ANC in its 23 years of power. Scandal and corruption allegations have tainted Zuma's presidency and the party that launched black majority rule under Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nelson Mandela is now deeply divided, its image tarnished at home and abroad.
Party spokesman Zizi Kodwa said the ANC hoped to declare a winner on Sunday, but this depended "on getting through the credentials process," or vetting the eligibility of the delegates.
Under ANC rules, a majority of nominations is not the same as the most votes at the conference and delegates are not bound to vote for a particular candidate.
How the roughly 6,000 delegates will vote may also be subject to vote-buying and intimidation - which are widely acknowledged to have swayed previous leadership contests.
ANC Chairwoman Baleka Mbete - who is also the speaker of parliament - publicly endorsed Ramaphosa, online news service EWN reported.
Stan Itshegetseng, chairman of an ANC branch in Soweto, said: "I believe Cyril will win this election because the majority of ANC branches endorsed him."
Carl Niehaus, a key member of Dlamini-Zuma's campaign, said she would be propelled to victory by "the grassroots and the poor. That is important in South Africa because we have a huge gap between rich and poor."
Dlamini-Zuma pledged during her campaign to tackle the racial inequality that persists in South Africa since the end of white minority rule.
Ramaphosa vowed to fight corruption and revitalise the economy. That message has gone down well with foreign investors.
Managing director of Goldman Sachs in South Africa, Colin Coleman, described the two candidates as "quite divergent" in their views on how to revive a lacklustre economy.
In a boost to Ramaphosa, courts ruled that officials from some provinces seen as supporting Dlamini-Zuma had been elected illegally and were barred from the conference. The rand currency firmed more than 2 percent after that news on Friday.
In his last speech as ANC leader, Zuma called on the party to unite behind whoever is declared the winner, saying "the movement (ANC) must be the winner and not individuals."
(Additional reporting by Alexander Winning, Nqobile Dludla and Olivia Kumwenda-Mtambo; Writing by James Macharia; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)