Senior ANC member backs Ramaphosa for party leader

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JOHANNESBURG, Oct 29 (Reuters) A senior member of South Africa's ANC today called on hundreds of the ruling party's influential branches to back business tycoon Cyril Ramaphosa as the next president of the ruling party and the country.

Ramaphosa, 54, a former trade unionist, was the African National Congress' chief negotiator during talks that led to a peaceful end to apartheid in 1994 and Nelson Mandela becoming South Africa's first black president.

Ramaphosa has said he has no interest in becoming South Africa's next president but he would likely be a top contender in 2009 elections if he changed his mind, analysts say.

The ANC, which enjoys an electoral stranglehold on South African politics, holds a conference in December that will elect a new party leader who will almost certainly become South Africa's next president, replacing Thabo Mbeki.

Kader Asmal, a member of the ANC's National Executive Committee and former cabinet minister, said he nominated Ramaphosa for the party's presidency last week at the powerful Gaby Shapiro branch of the party in Rondebosch, Cape Town. The branch includes five cabinet ministers.

''I used my right as a member and senior member of the ANC to propose his name and it was accepted overwhelmingly, no other nomination got double figures,'' Asmal to Reuters.

''I hope there would be hundreds of branches that nominate him, because in my view he is the most suitable person to be president of the African National Congress and the president of South Africa.'' Asmal said he had not spoken to Ramaphosa about joining the race and it was up to him to decide. Ramaphosa's spokesperson was not available for comment.

RACE MORE INTERESTING The ANC leadership race has so far focused on Mbeki and ANC Deputy President Jacob Zuma, a rivalry that has helped plunge the party into some of the worst infighting in its history as millions of South Africans face poverty and authorities struggle to reduce one of the world's highest crime rates.

''I certainly think it makes the race much more interesting.

It addresses a need that I think is very widely felt in South Africa, to have a wider choice of candidates and it is a need that I have found is among the members of the ANC and people in general,'' said political analyst Susan Booysen.

ANC politicians often stress that they would not consider joining the party race unless they are nominated. So Ramaphosa may be holding out.

''This might certainly contribute to it, he is politically a very astute person, and I think he would use good judgement as to when to do something like this,'' said Booysen.

''We know the ANC culture of making yourself available when one is asked to do so, he is politically astute to recognise that. Maybe this is that push that he needs.'' Mbeki is constitutionally barred from serving again when his term expires in 2009, though nothing prevents him from running for another term as leader of the ANC.

Mbeki has faced growing criticism from opponents, who accuse him of using state institutions to purge opponents, something he denies.

Zuma enjoys wide support from unions, who are critical of Mbeki's pro-business policies. But he is hounded by corruption allegations he says are part of a smear campaign.

South Africa's Sunday Times 2006 Rich List estimates Ramaphosa is worth 75 million dollars.

The pivotal role Ramaphosa played in drafting South Africa's constitution after apartheid would give him weight.

REUTERS SKB RN1948

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