Cyril Ramaphosa, a former trade unionist and business tycoon, has been chosen by the African National Congress to replace its scandal-prone president Jacob Zuma.
Despite the celebrations that greeted Mr Ramaphosa’s victory one of the ANC’s most senior officials, who was elected to office alongside the new leader, this morning faces a challenge by rivals who claim they were cheated during the ballot.
Mr Ramaphosa, 65, won by a margin of 171 ballots out of 4,700 in a closely-fought contest to lead South Africa’s ruling party that was marred by long delays amid accusations of poll-rigging and fake voters.
His election will be met with relief among investors since Mr Ramaphosa is seen as a market-friendly centrist while his defeated rival, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, 68, had vowed to drive forward the radical economic policies of her former husband Mr Zuma that included land grabs and the indigenisation of foreign-owned mines.
Any attempt to implement quick reforms could be stymied, however, over a challenge to the election of Ace Magashule — a Zuma stalwart — who yesterday became secretary-general, a position akin to a prime minister, by just 24 votes.
Early counts had handed victory instead to Senzo Mchunu, an ally of the new ANC president Mr Ramaphosa, but several recounts later Mr Magashule emerged as the winner.
Mr Magashule is a deeply polarising figure who has repeatedly been accused of corruption and closeness to the Gupta Indian business family, who have dominated South African headlines for allegedly corrupting the government. His election as secretary-general could hamper the reformist, anti-corruption agenda that has made Mr Ramaphosa, 65, popular around the country.
Supporters of Mr Mchunu claim 68 ballot papers in their candidate’s favour were discounted because they did not carry votes for all the other top six positions. They have called for another recount, including the 68 votes, under threat of taking the result to the courts to seek a re-run of the entire ANC leadership vote.
A Zuma loyalist was also elected to the deputy president’s position. Mr Ramaphosa must now decide whether to risk a damaging split by attempting to recall Mr Zuma as state president before he steps down in 2019 elections, or push on with his arch rival still in the Union Buildings, potentially blocking every move he makes.
Mr Ramaphosa’s victory represents the fulfilment of an almost three-decade long ambition to lead the movement fostered by Nelson Mandela, who nominated Mr Ramaphosa as his successor in 1999 but was overruled by the party, which picked Thabo Mbeki.
It was greeted with intense relief by millions of South Africans who have marched in protest against Mr Zuma’s misrule and alleged corruption and feared that a victory for Mrs Dlamini-Zuma, might mean more of the same.
Mr Ramaphosa, a former trade unionist and business tycoon who helped to craft South Africa’s post-apartheid, liberal constitution, has promised to run an administration of clean governance and to revitalise the economy, which has been repeatedly downgraded by credit agencies under Mr Zuma, 75.
Mr Ramaphosa’s victory also bolsters the ANC’s chances of winning the 2019 elections since he is generally popular among South Africans. He might be able to stave off the increasing challenge from opposition parties including the Democratic Alliance, which wrested control of Johannesburg and Pretoria from the ANC in last year’s local elections amid public anger over reports of corruption in the government.
The news of Mr Ramaphosa’s victory was greeted with loud cheers at the massive Nasrec convention centre in Soweto, south of Johannesburg.
In the run-up to the poll, Mr Ramaphosa had won the majority of nominations by the ANC’s constituencies around South Africa, and several judgements by courts and the ANC about questionable voting delegates had gone his way.
But Mrs Dlamini-Zuma’s supporters dominated in the songs and dances that characterise South African political conferences and few could believe the Mr Zuma’schosen successor would not succeed.
Mr Zuma’s ten years at the helm of the party and the country has been marred by a series of scandals. He and his backers are thought to have pushed his former wife forward as a presidential candidate in the hope that she would frustrate any bid to prosecute him.