Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is a long-standing heavyweight in the ANC, holding several ministerial positions since the end of white-minority rule in 1994.
JOHANNESBURG - The ANC Women's League on Saturday backed Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the ex-wife of President Jacob Zuma, to be the party's next leader.
The ANC will pick a new party leader at conference in December and, given its national dominance, the winner is likely to go on to be South Africa's next president when elections are held in 2019.
Dlamini-Zuma, the chairwoman of the African Union, is viewed as a frontrunner. She is expected to have the backing of her former husband, who will have a major say in who succeeds him.
Vice President Cyril Ramaphosa, a unionist-turned-business tycoon, is viewed as her most likely rival after powerful trade unions endorsed him last year. Neither Dlamini-Zuma (67) or Ramaphosa (64) have declared their intention to run.
Dlamini-Zuma, a medical doctor, was a staunch anti-apartheid activist and lived in exile. She has held several senior government positions, including as home affairs minister in Zuma's cabinet.
The Women's League's endorsement is the first for a specific candidate by a national section of the ANC and will intensify the debate over who will take the party forward after it suffered its worst local election results last year.
The Women's League has a block of votes at party conference and are a critical lobbying group for the party, particularly in galvanising support among female voters.
"After careful consideration and opening our eyes as wide as possible, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is the only suitable candidate," the Women's League said in a statement.
"Her legacy and influence is known and well documented throughout the history pages of the republic and beyond."