CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Cyril Ramaphosa was elected by a majority in parliament as South Africa’s president on Thursday, marking a turning point for the country after the slow-motion collapse of the once-legendary ruling party under Jacob Zuma.
Zuma resigned on Wednesday night under mounting pressure from his party, the African National Congress (ANC), leaving both the leadership of the ANC and the continent’s second biggest economy in the hands of Ramaphosa, 65.
After the parliamentary vote, Ramaphosa addressed the nation for the first time as its leader. He will be sworn in later on Thursday.
“Our intent is to continue to improve the lives of our people,” he said.
Like Zuma, Ramaphosa is a member of the ANC’s revolutionary vanguard, who rose to prominence as young men fighting the white minority apartheid regime. He went on to become a union leader and one of the nation’s wealthiest black business executives.
For years, he had been rumored as an heir to the country’s presidency. But the country he inherits is far from the one envisioned by Mandela and his acolytes. During Zuma’s nine years in office, the country’s most important public institutions frayed. Zuma himself was plagued by a string of corruption scandals. The economy dipped into recession. The currency continued to slide.
Ramaphosa faces the complicated task of rehabilitating a government in decline as well as reviving the promise that Mandela articulated at the dawn of South Africa’s post-apartheid era.
He takes office as Cape Town, a city of four million people, appears to be on the verge of running out of water, a product of both drought and public mismanagement. The country’s courts are in the midst of investigating how 144 psychiatric patients died in 2016 when they were moved from a hospital to several ill-equipped NGOs. Just as Ramaphosa was sworn in, a manhunt appeared to be underway for one of Zuma’s sons, who was embroiled in a fraud case involving a large dairy farm.
In his speech, he downplayed the chaos that has buffeted the country and his party.
“The lives of our people have been improving on an ongoing basis,” he said.
Aside from a string of unresolved scandals, Ramaphosa will have to reckon with the vast economic divide that has left millions of black South Africans languishing in informal settlements while the country’s upper crust has grown fabulously wealthy. Ramaphosa is among those who have accrued large fortunes in the last two decades, and he’ll have to find a way to connect with those have not benefited as he has.
“The hope that existed in 1994 — that tomorrow will be better than today — has unsurprisingly given way to disillusionment and despair,” read an editorial in South Africa’s Business Day newspaper, on the challenges facing Ramaphosa.
In the short-term, Ramaphosa and other members of the ANC’s leadership will have to decide whether to pursue charges against Zuma for some of his unresolved corruption scandals. South Africa’s opposition parties have said they will press that issue.
“We look forward to seeing (Zuma) again in court‚ and soon‚ to face justice for his multitude of crimes against the people of South Africa‚” said a statement from the political party Save SA.
Ramaphosa will remain president until next year’s national elections, when he is expected to run as the ANC’s candidate — and likely win. He has said he intends to regain the trust of South Africans whose faith in politics was shaken during Zuma’s term.
During the last municipal elections in 2016, the ANC suffered a shocking loss in some of its former strongholds, which some analysts said could portend an impending loss in a national election, unimaginable only a decade earlier.
In a statement after his inauguration, the ANC began encouraging Ramaphosa to begin implementing economic reforms — including a controversial policy of forcibly redistributing land, which economists have said could backfire.
“The African National Congress has full confidence in President Ramaphosa to build on the foundation laid and focus the country on accelerating our program of fundamental and radical socio-economic transformation,” the statement said. “This will include giving effect to the ANC resolutions to accelerate land redistribution through among other mechanisms, the expropriation of land without compensation.”
For many, Zuma’s resignation was a much-needed affirmation that after a bruising few years, South Africa’s young democracy was still intact. After calling foul on the Zuma administration time and again, the nation’s tenacious press, civil society, and legal institutions finally pushed the hand of the ruling party to self-correct.
“At the beginning, the ANC was in total denial, and we actually got here,” said William Gumede, executive chairman of the Democracy Works Foundation. “It tells you something about civil society in the country. It’s extraordinary.”
Mahr reported from Johannesburg.