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South Africa Elects Cyril Ramaphosa As Its New President

Cyril Ramaphosa seen delivering a speech Sunday at the Grand Parade in Cape Town, South Africa, before he was elected president.
Cyril Ramaphosa seen delivering a speech Sunday at the Grand Parade in Cape Town, South Africa, before he was elected president.

South Africa Elects Cyril Ramaphosa As Its New President

Cyril Ramaphosa has waited for this moment a long time.

The 65-year-old tycoon was elected president of South Africa by parliament Thursday, an elevation that was guaranteed after Jacob Zuma resigned the presidency the night before.


Following Thursday's vote in the National Assembly, Ramaphosa took words of praise from supporters and overt electoral threats from opposition leaders — then stood at the same podium where, 22 years ago, he shepherded the ratification of South Africa's constitution.

Ramaphosa promised to "continue to improve the lives of our people," and said he would "work very hard to try to not disappoint the people of South Africa."

It was a clear indication he plans to take the country in a different direction from his predecessor. On Friday night, Ramaphosa will deliver his first State of the Nation Address, which he said would outline his plans to fight corruption in the country.

It's a speech he will have waited decades to give.

'The remainees'


Ramaphosa "represents the struggle of remainees," said political analyst Somadodo Fikeni, using the South African term to describe African National Congress veterans who were neither exiled, such as former President Thabo Mbeki, nor sentenced to prison on Robben Island, like the late Nelson Mandela. Zuma was both a Robben Island political prisoner and an exiled leader.

With the ANC banned in South Africa and operating from headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia, remainees were left to fight apartheid on the ground in the few ways they could.

Ramaphosa founded the National Union of Mineworkers, which organized the poor laborers who provided the backbone of the apartheid economy.

As union leader, he led "hard debates" with mining executives that led to "violent strikes," said Ray Hartley, author of the new biography Ramaphosa, The Man Who Would Be King.

Hartley said those talks catapulted Ramaphosa to the position of chief negotiator during talks with the apartheid government ahead of the transition to democracy. "He was probably the only senior leader who actually had real experience of what it means to use the negotiation process effectively to get your goals achieved," he said. "And Nelson Mandela noticed that."

Crafting the constitution

Ramaphosa was Mandela's chosen successor, but when he lost the race for deputy president to Mbeki, those plans were scrapped.

According to Hartley's book, Ramaphosa has said the reason was that at 44 years old, "a number of people felt that I was still too young."

Others, Hartley said, didn't want Ramaphosa to assume the role as Mandela's No. 2 because he was a remainee and did not climb the ANC ranks in exile.

After losing the race, Ramaphosa was "deployed" to the private sector, where he began amassing a fortune worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Ramaphosa benefited from both key government contacts and new laws that required businesses to partner with black South Africans.

Critics of Black Economic Empowerment programs deride them as giveaways to a politically connected few, who are dismissed as the "black billionaire class."

In 1996, while working in the private sector, Mandela summoned Ramaphosa to help craft the country's constitution, which is now considered among the most progressive in the world.

Ramaphosa heeded Mandela's call. "His strength is that he knows when to act," Hartley said.

Urging Parliament to pass the bill that would ratify the country's new constitution, Ramaphosa delivered an impassioned speech in defense of universal human rights.

He called the document "South Africa's birth certificate."

"When we vote today to adopt the constitution before us, we will be giving life to a new nation. A nation of free and equal people," Ramaphosa said. "Our country, our people, will indeed have come of age when we vote for this constitution."

Just two years into democracy, it was not a foregone conclusion that the country would adopt a bill of rights enshrining universal voting rights. But it did.

From striker to strike-breaker

Ramaphosa sat on dozens of corporate boards. He incorporated Shanduka Group to manage his assets, which included the entire McDonald's franchise for South Africa.

In 2012, as a board member of the mining firm Lonmin, he urged police to intervene and stop an illegal strike after 10 miners were killed. Emails revealed he called the strike "dastardly criminal."

The next day, police shot and killed 34 miners. Dozens more were injured in what amounts to the deadliest act of violence in post-apartheid South Africa. Ramaphosa long has claimed innocence; that he was using his political connections with the minister of police to stop the violence from spreading.

An investigating commission cleared Ramaphosa of wrongdoing, but to opponents, such as the upstart Economic Freedom Fighters, a leftist political party, Ramaphosa had sold out. The union organizer sided with management.

Ramaphosa has said he would return to Marikana with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the late president's divorced wife, to apologize, but he has yet to do so.

Master of the long game

Ramaphosa re-entered politics when he became the ANC's deputy president in late 2012. The position put him in line to be deputy to President Jacob Zuma, and Zuma's likely successor.

He has an "excellent sense of timing," said Fikeni, the political analyst.

Ramaphosa's supporters say he's the master of the long game. They say business was not his passion, and that he always intended to return to politics when the time was right.

Spurned by the party elders 22 years ago, he now has full control of the ANC and the government. When he was elected party leader in December, his margin of victory over Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma — a former government minister and Jacob Zuma's ex-wife — was smaller than some anticipated. But since then, he's consolidated his power.

The task ahead is to manage the party and government, said Dirk Kotze, a political scientist at the University of South Africa.

"In 2004, the ANC had about 70 percent" support in the country, Kotze said. "Now it's about 54, 55 percent."

The economy likely is pulling that number down: The unemployment rate is 28 percent, and South African society remains one of the most unequal in the world.

"For all of his strengths and for all ... the things that he could do that Zuma couldn't do, there are severe structural problems here in this country," says biographer Hartley.

The ANC has won an outright majority in every national election since apartheid ended in 1991. Each of the country's five presidents has been a member of the party. But the 2019 elections are no guarantee, and if the ANC does not win a 50 percent majority, it will be forced to form a coalition for the first time.

Many Ramaphosa supporters and even some former Zuma allies have blamed Zuma for the party's woes.

Tebogo Moabelo, 35, an attorney in Pretoria, says the new president has at least one thing going for him: "He's not Jacob Zuma."

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