The fight to lead South Africa's ruling African National Congress hung in the balance on Monday, with voters and markets on edge for a result that will set the direction for the country and the scandal-plagued party.
As officials counted ballots in the leadership vote, senior party members drew battle lines on social media, backing either Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa or Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma – a former cabinet minister and the ex-wife of President Jacob Zuma.
A party spokesman said he was expecting a result by the late afternoon or early evening, though the process has been beset by delays.
ANC chairwoman Baleka Mbete told delegates election officials would join the delegates in the main conference area at 5 p.m. local time. It was unclear whether that signaled an imminent result.
The vote is perhaps the most pivotal moment for the ANC since it launched black-majority rule under Nelson Mandela's leadership 23 years ago. Mr. Zuma's presidency, tainted by graft accusations that he denies, has tarnished the party's image and raised the prospect of splits.
Whoever emerges at the helm of the 105-year-old liberation movement is likely to become the country's next president after elections in 2019.
"It is going to be very close," a senior ANC source said. "Both camps have spreadsheets where they have calculated the number of delegates on their side. Both sides have different assumptions and guesswork."
Mr. Ramaphosa a former trade union leader who became a businessman and is now one of the richest people in South Africa, has vowed to fight corruption and revitalize the economy, a message hailed by foreign investors.
Ms. Dlamini-Zuma, the president's preferred candidate, has pledged to tackle the racial inequality that has persisted since the end of white-minority rule.
They were the only candidates nominated for the ANC leadership at a conference in Johannesburg on Sunday night.
The party's chief whip Jackson Mthembu announced on Twitter that he voted for Ramaphosa, while police minister Fikile Mbalula tweeted that he had cast his vote for Dlamini-Zuma.
Zweli Mkhize, the outgoing ANC treasurer general, declined to say who he would vote for but said he had "absolute confidence" the delegates would make a good choice.
In a boost to Ramaphosa, courts ruled last week that officials from some provinces seen as supporting Dlamini-Zuma had been elected illegally and were barred from the conference.
The rand currency rose on the court orders and then extended its gains on Monday, racing to a 3-1/2-month high of 12.7300 earlier. Government bonds also firmed on hopes Ramaphosa would win the race.
"The rand is considerably stronger than where it was last week. I think a Cyril Ramaphosa win is priced in," said IG Markets currency strategist Shaun Murison.
"Please fasten your seatbelts!" Commerzbank analysts said in a note, aimed at traders holding rand positions.
Ramaphosa drew the majority of nominations from party branches scattered across the country. But the delegates are not bound by their branches when they vote at the conference.
"The race is extremely close," said Susan Booysen, a political analyst at the University of Witwatersrand's School of Governance in Johannesburg.
"Before today we said Dlamini-Zuma could emerge as a winner. Even if there is a strong lead in terms of branch nominations by the Ramaphosa camp, it's not clear-cut."
In his last speech as ANC president on Saturday, Zuma announced plans to raise subsidies for tertiary colleges and universities, a move analysts said was timed to appeal to the party's more populist members allied to Dlamini-Zuma, the first woman nominated as an ANC presidential candidate.
Zuma has faced allegations of corruption since he became head of state in 2009 but has denied any wrongdoing.
On Monday, Zuma visited a part of the conference where businesses and charitable foundations had set up stands.
"I am happy to say now I'm bowing out because I think from my own point of view I made my contribution," he told reporters.
This story was reported by Reuters.