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Cyril Ramaphosa was elected leader of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress on Monday, threatening President Jacob Zuma’s grip on power after the most divisive vote in the party’s history.
After hours of tension at the ANC’s five-yearly congress that included a recount, Mr Ramaphosa, the deputy president, narrowly defeated Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Mr Zuma’s former wife, whom the president had backed.
Analysts believe Mr Zuma lent Ms Dlamini-Zuma his support because he hoped she would protect him from prosecution in a corruption case once she succeeded him as South African president. Mr Ramaphosa won by 2,440 votes to 2,261, prompting cheering, dancing and singing among his supporters at the climax of the a three-day congress marked by long hours of backroom political infighitng.
Mr Ramaphosa campaigned on a promise to root out corruption and rescue the ANC, the party that defeated apartheid under Nelson Mandela’s leadership which is now at risk of losing its majority for the first time at the 2019 election.
His victory could lead to the ANC sacking Mr Zuma as president within weeks.
Mr Zuma survived calls within the party this year for his exit over graft allegations by exerting an iron grip on top ANC decision-making bodies. His second and last term as the country’s president ends in 2019.
The South African rand surged against the US dollar on the announcement of Mr Ramaphosa’s victory. It had risen during Monday trading in anticipation of a loss for Ms Dlamini-Zuma, who had promised populist policies to accelerate black ownership in the economy.
“The country outside the 5,000 ANC delegates has breathed a huge sigh of relief,” said Lawson Naidoo, executive secretary of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution, which has campaigned against the perceived attack on independent institutions under Mr Zuma. “We can now put a break on the downward slide of South African politics and economics,” he said.
But, in a sign of the sharp divisions that Mr Ramaphosa is inheriting as ANC leader, close allies of Mr Zuma were elected as deputy president and secretary-general of the party in a voting process by delegates that was marred by allegations of vote-rigging and bribery.
Mr Ramaphosa, a former union leader who used his ANC ties to become one of South Africa’s richest black businessmen in the post-apartheid period, was seen as the candidate most able to unite business and the government to reignite the economy, which has ground to a halt under Mr Zuma.
Mr Naidoo said that voters would be looking for signs Mr Ramaphosa could gain control of the party and roll back corruption.
“He should move swiftly to remove Zuma or to persuade Zuma to step down as president of the country,” he said, adding that this would allow Mr Ramaphosa to give the state of the nation speech in February that is expected to set the tone for the ANC’s policy agenda for the 2019 parliamentary elections.
During his campaign, Mr Ramaphosa made thinly veiled attacks on Mr Zuma’s relationship with the Gupta family, who are accused of using their friendship with the president to influence cabinet appointments and state business. He promised to root out corrupt ANC officials. Mr Zuma and the Guptas have denied allegations of corruption.
Mr Ramaphosa will now lead the ANC to the polls in 2019 with the task of reviving support among the country’s black majority, who have grown alienated by Mr Zuma’s scandals and the claims of corruption at the heart of his presidency.
South Africa’s main opposition Democratic Alliance called on Mr Ramaphosa to fire Mr Zuma as president immediately. “If he fails to do so, Mr Ramaphosa will show South Africa that the leaders in the ANC are all friends, and they practice their corruption together,” said Mmusi Maimane, the DA’s leader.