Cyril Ramaphosa has been elected president of South Africa by a parliamentary vote, less than 16 hours after his rival Jacob Zuma resigned after days of defiantly refusing to leave office.
The appointment as head of state of Ramaphosa, 65, who became interim leader following Zuma’s late-night resignation on Wednesday, was announced by South Africa’s chief justice in Cape Town, who presided over the vote.
Ramaphosa, wearing a dark suit and red tie, sat quietly while lawmakers from the ruling African National Congress stood, clapped and sang in celebration. He was elected unopposed.
In a short speech, the former deputy president reached out to opposition parties, telling parliamentarians that “South Africa must come first in everything we do” and pledging to fight corruption.
“This is not yet uhuru (freedom). We have never said it is uhuru. We are going to seek to improve the lives of our people on an ongoing basis, and since 1994, we have done precisely that,” Ramaphosa said.
The ANC has a substantial majority in parliament and the vote was effectively a formality. Although deeply divided, the party has already closed ranks after the crisis of recent days and rallied around Ramaphosa.
Party officials who nominated him described the president as “a revolutionary cadre who has served the people of South Africa all his life and will strength the unity of our country”.
Patrick Maesela, an ANC MP, said: “Africa and the world are pinning their hopes on your revolutionary leadership.”
The Economic Freedom Fighters, a radical leftwing opposition party, walked out of parliament, saying the assembly was illegitimate and new elections were necessary.
Mmusi Maimane, the leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance, offered congratulations and said his party would “cooperate” if the president “acts in the interests of the people of South Africa”. Maimane said the country did not have a “Jacob Zuma problem but … an ANC problem”.
Ramaphosa, a former anti-apartheid activist turned successful businessman, is the standard bearer for the moderate, reformist faction of the ANC. Zuma, 75, represented the party’s more populist, nationalist elements, commentators said.
The latter’s resignation put an end to an intense political crisis that threatened to inflict significant damage on the ANC, which has ruled South Africa since the country’s first free elections in 1994.
In a televised address to the nation late on Wednesday, Zuma said he was a disciplined member of the party, to which he had dedicated his life.
“I fear no motion of no confidence or impeachment,” he said. “I will continue to serve the people of South Africa and the ANC. I will dedicate my life to continuing to work for the execution of the policies of our organisation.
“The ANC should never be divided in my name. I have therefore come to the decision to resign as president of the republic with immediate effect.”
The announcement ended an extraordinary day in South African politics, which begun with a dawn raid on the home of the Guptas, a business family at the centre of recent corruption allegations levelled at Zuma.
Ajay Gupta, one of the three Gupta brothers accused of having improper links to Zuma, was declared a fugitive from justice on Thursday after failing to hand himself in to police.
Zuma, who has led the ANC since 2007 and been South Africa’s president since 2009, was due to leave power next year. His tenure was marred by economic decline and multiple charges of graft, undermining the image and legitimacy of the party that led the struggle against apartheid.
The crisis of recent days has further damaged the ANC, as well as angering many South Africans, who are becoming increasingly impatient with the party’s opaque internal procedures.
In December, Ramaphosa won a bitterly fought ANC leadership election. Party strategists wanted Zuma to be sidelined as quickly as possible, to allow the ANC to regroup before campaigning starts for elections in 2019.
The party suffered significant setbacks in municipal polls in 2016 and could be forced into a coalition government at the national level, experts have said.
As president, Ramaphosa will have to balance the need to reassure foreign investors and local businesses with the intense popular demand for dramatic measures to address South Africa’s deep problems. The former trade union leader has said South Africa is coming out of a “period of uncertainty, a period of darkness, and getting into a new phase”.
Richard Calland, an expert in South African politics at the University of Cape Town, said Ramaphosa would have “the chance to rebuild government and the party at the same time”.
In recent days, the rand has strengthened and many analysts have revised upwards their predictions of South Africa’s economic growth.
After Zuma’s address, the ANC immediately closed ranks. Jessie Duarte, the party’s deputy secretary general, told reporters the ANC was “not celebrating” at a “very painful moment”.