Former KwaZulu-Natal premier and provincial heavyweight Senzo Mchunu has thrown his support behind deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa as the candidate to succeed Jacob Zuma as ANC president in 2017.

Mchunu’s endorsement for Ramaphosa comes just a few days after the deputy president made his intentions clear that he was ready to enter the contest for the top ANC position.

To the delight of his supporters who were unsure whether he was interested in succeeding Zuma, Ramaphosa this week used the Nelson Mandela Memorial Dialogue to call on ANC leaders to rid themselves of deviant tendencies and put the needs of the people before their own.

In what many interpreted as an indirect attack on Zuma, Ramaphosa delivered a scathing criticism of the ANC and leaders who continued to display arrogant tendencies, even after the ANC lost key areas in this year’s local government elections.

In an interview with the Mail & Guardian on Wednesday Mchunu, who was forced to step down as premier by a competing faction early this year, said his support for Ramaphosa was based on the principle that has guided leadership succession in the ANC over many years.

Mchunu pointed to the legacy of ANC deputy presidents succeeding the president, starting with Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki.

He said ANC members supported Zuma to succeed Mbeki as leader of the ANC as a matter of principle.

“This happened even after what you would say was not a desirable development, where there were allegations of rape [against Zuma], which was enough to taint him.”

Mchunu, who still enjoys significant support across KwaZulu-Natal, said he did not understand why the tradition that saw Zuma take over the ANC’s top position no longer applies when it comes to Ramaphosa.

“The question is: What has changed? What informs whatever change? When we have divisions in the ANC, like we have now, we should not try to hide those divisions by avoiding what we’ve been doing in the past. By saying he [Ramaphosa] shouldn’t [succeed Zuma], we’re merely reflecting what we are about today, which is divisions,” said Mchunu.

The Zuma faction in the ANC want outgoing African Union Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to succeed him.

Mchunu said his support for Ramaphosa should not be misinterpreted as opposition to women becoming ANC president.

“It’s not a question of a woman and nobody is saying no to that, as long as you are following principle.