South Africa’s next leader Cyril Ramaphosa faces plenty of challenges

He grew up in Soweto, Johannesburg’s notoriously impoverished segregated township, and became one of South Africa’s richest men, but Cyril Ramaphosa’s toughest years may lie ahead.

A protégé of Nelson Mandela, Ramaphosa, 65, will become president if he can persuade the scandal-tarnished incumbent, Jacob Zuma, to stand aside. South Africa’s Parliament postponed Zuma’s state of the nation address on Thursday but the president has refused to relinquish his grip on power.

But it is not just politics that Ramaphosa, a former labor organizer, will need to clean up. South Africa is beset by high unemployment and low growth while one of its largest cities, Cape Town, is likely to run out of water within weeks.

Image: Mandela and Ramaphosa
Nelson Mandela and Cyril Ramaphosa in 1994.

In fixing the country, Ramaphosa will first need to unite his ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), which has become factionalized since the golden era of Mandela’s release from prison and the end of white minority rule.

“This was the party of liberation, of Nelson Mandela, and under Zuma it has fallen so far it is unrecognizable from the party Mandela led,” said Pieter du Toit, a journalist who co-wrote “Enemy of the People: How Jacob Zuma Stole South Africa and How the People Fought Back.”

“The hope is Ramaphosa will turn that around,” du Toit said.

While Ramaphosa will need his experience as a lawyer and businessman, he may rely even more on negotiating skills earned during his years as an apartheid-era union leader.

He has already ousted Zuma from the leadership of the ANC, but not yet from the country’s presidency. Zuma was conducting business as usual throughout the week, his office said, despite reports of his imminent resignation.

The ANC’s National Executive Committee had been scheduled to discuss “management of the transition” on Wednesday but postponed the meeting after “fruitful and constructive engagements” between Zuma and Ramaphosa; a photo of them smiling at a Cabinet meeting was posted on a government Twitter feed.

“I am aware that the uncertainty surrounding the position of the head of state and government is a cause for concern among many South Africans,” Ramaphosa later tweeted. “This is understandable. We will be able to communicate further on President Zuma’s position as President of the Republic once we have finalized all pertinent matters.”

South African media said Sunday that the party’s national executive will meet on Monday as the nation awaits word on Zuma’s fate.

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