JOHANNESBURG — In the tiny Venda district of South Africa, close to the northern border with Zimbabwe, celebrations that continued into Tuesday featured one of their own as the star of the moment.
In a close battle for the leadership of the long-ruling African National Congress over the weekend, the victory of 65-year-old Vice President Cyril Ramaphosa puts a member of one of the country’s smallest tribes on the path to be the next president, succeeding beleaguered President Jacob Zuma in national elections set for 2019.
Coupled with the recent ouster of long-ruling President Robert Mugabe in neighboring Zimbabwe, Mr. Ramaphosa’s win accelerates a period of unusual political transition and uncertainty for the region.
Inside South Africa, however, the ANC delegates’ vote is seen as a particularly sweet triumph for a small minority long overshadowed by more powerful blocs in post-apartheid South African politics.
For more than a century, the party — in power here since the end of white rule in 1994 — has been dominated by the Xhosa tribe of Nelson Mandela and the Zulu tribe of Mr. Zuma. Between them, the Xhosa and Zulu make up a third of South Africa’s 55 million people.
By contrast, the Venda, who migrated from the Congo basin 1,000 years ago, number fewer than 700,000 — far below even the country’s white minority estimated at 5 million.
But in the complicated tribal relationships that still color electoral politics, it is precisely the Venda’s modest numbers that are giving many revived optimism in a party and nation plagued by widespread reports of corruption since Mr. Zuma took over as leader in 2009. Some say the accusations could put the ANC’s dominance of the political scene in doubt in 2019.
“There are not enough Venda to hijack the country,” said Mike Kunene, who speaks Swazi, another of the country’s 11 official languages.
“When Thabo Mbeki was president [from 1999 to 2008], you had to be Xhosa to get anywhere,” said Mr. Kunene. “Under Zuma, the Zulus have led the way. I am hoping that Cyril as a Venda will have to involve all South Africans because his own people are so few.”
Mr. Kunene works as a motorbike delivery driver for a local McDonald’s franchise, one of the many assets owned by the billionaire Mr. Ramaphosa, who formed a successful investment company after an early career in politics and as a prominent trade union leader.
“Cyril is a businessman, and maybe he can sort the economy,” he said.
The ANC summit started Saturday with former foreign minister, 68-year-old Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, as the favorite to win the party’s top post. Ms. Dlamini-Zuma, who had a strong following from ANC’s rural base, is also Mr. Zuma’s ex-wife.
But a string of court judgments barring delegates from Ms. Dlamini-Zuma’s strongholds on grounds they were not properly elected by their home branches gave a big boost to Mr. Ramaphosa, the only other candidate.
At the end of counting on Monday night, Ms. Dlamini-Zuma was just 179 votes behind her rival’s 2,440, making him the winner. The close loss may signal continuing divisions within the ANC.
Enelise Nkomo works as an office cleaner in one of the poorer suburbs of Johannesburg. She said she was sad that a woman had not been elected.
“I think Nkosazana would have had more empathy with many of us and our problems. This country has been run by men for so long, and now we have missed the chance to have a lady at the top,” she said.
It was a sentiment echoed by the powerful ANC Women’s League, which backed Dlamini-Zuma along with her former husband. The couple married in 1982 and divorced in 1998. They have four children, and Mr. Zuma currently has four other wives.
In recent weeks, talk radio has been dominated by the leadership race and the fate of Mr. Zuma. The head of state, who stepped down as party leader this weekend, faces hundreds of pending court actions relating to corruption totaling millions of dollars during his eight years in office.
In 2019, at the end of his second and final term as president, he will become an ordinary citizen. Bereft of power and immunity, Mr. Zuma could face legal prosecution and even prison.
His critics in the ANC say he has brought the party into disrepute by helping friends to government contracts and using millions of dollars in state funds to renovate his private home.
Analysts say her ex-husband’s unpopularity and her potential unwillingness to move against the father of her children worked against her in the ANC leadership fight. With Mr. Ramaphosa now heading the party, there is already speculation that Mr. Zuma could be forced out of office before the end of his term.
“Jacob” and “Cyril,” as they are referred to locally, have long been at odds on policy, party affairs, spending and how to boost South African’s moribund economy. The rand, the South African currency, jumped 4 percent against the dollar on news of Mr. Ramaphosa’s win Monday.
Numbering less than 2 percent of the population, the Venda speak with pride how, for the first time in history, one of their sons is set to lead the country.
But they have also presented their champion with a major task to tackle: reviving the economy, easing poverty levels, attracting foreign investment and dealing with the legacy of corruption from the Zuma years.