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Newly elected South African President Cyril Ramaphosa vows anti-corruption fight

Acting President of South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa arrives at Parliament in Cape Town on Feb. 15, 2018.

MIKE HUTCHINGS/AFP/Getty Images

Cyril Ramaphosa, sworn in as South Africa's new president on Thursday, faces a monumental task as he begins efforts to clean up his government after nine years of misrule and corruption scandals under his predecessor, Jacob Zuma.

"I will try very hard not to disappoint the people of South Africa," Mr. Ramaphosa told Parliament in a brief speech after he was declared elected as the only candidate for president.

He promised to be a "servant" to the people with "humility, faithfulness and dignity." And he vowed to tackle the corruption scandal known as "state capture," in which Mr. Zuma's government fell under the heavy influence of the wealthy Gupta brothers.

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Mr. Ramaphosa, a 65-year-old former trade union leader who helped negotiate South Africa's first democratic constitution in the early 1990s, becomes the country's fifth president since the end of apartheid. The ruling party chose him as its leader in December and then forced the reluctant Mr. Zuma to leave office this week.

The President will need all his skill as a negotiator and conciliator to make progress against the country's huge problems: a stagnant economy, high unemployment, extreme inequality, widespread corruption, deep poverty, and a ruling party that has feuded internally on how to respond to those challenges.

On Thursday, just minutes before Parliament formally approved him as president, he was given a sharp reminder of the deep divisions that haunt the country. One of the biggest opposition parties, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), refused to participate in the parliamentary election. Instead, its MPs stormed out of Parliament to support their demands for a new national election.

For years, the EFF has zeroed in on Mr. Ramaphosa's biggest political weakness: his background as a wealthy businessman who built a vast fortune in mining and other investments while most South Africans were mired in poverty. Forbes magazine estimated his wealth at US$450-million in 2015, making him one of the 12 richest individuals in South Africa.

Nelson Mandela, the liberation hero who became South Africa's first president after apartheid, wanted Mr. Ramaphosa to be his successor in the late 1990s. But the ruling party, the African National Congress, had other preferences. So he left politics, went into the business sector and sat on the boards of powerful mining companies for many years, including the Lonmin platinum company where the Marikana massacre occurred in 2012. He has had to fend off accusations that he supported the police shootings that killed 34 protesters at Marikana.

One of his hobbies is game farming. The EFF has attacked Mr. Ramaphosa for using his wealth to bid about US$3-million at an auction for a prized buffalo cow and her calf in 2012. He later apologized for the bid. "It was a mistake to even put up my hand to do so," he said in 2012. "It is a mistake in the sea of poverty."

Despite the apology, he was soon dubbed "Buffalo" – a nickname he cheerfully embraced in his campaign for the leadership of the ANC last year.

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While his opponents see him as a symbol of the country's inequality, which ranks among the most extreme in the world, his supporters are convinced that he can rebuild South Africa's economy by attracting foreign investment.

For years, investors have shied away from the country, with its labour strife and other obstacles for business. But last month, Mr. Ramaphosa wowed the corporate elite at the World Economic Forum in Davos, convincing many that a new era is under way. South Africa's currency, the rand, has climbed rapidly since his election as ANC leader.

While seeking foreign investment, Mr. Ramaphosa must also juggle the demands of ANC left-wingers who want radical land reform and greater black ownership of the economy.

In Mr. Ramaphosa's nomination for president on Thursday, ANC parliamentarian Joanmariae Fubbs sought to polish his progressive credentials by calling him a "revolutionary cadre" and a "principled unionist" who supports a "radical economic transformation" of the country.

But for most South Africans, the biggest test of his presidency will be the corruption issue. There has been enormous public outrage at the extent of corruption under Mr. Zuma, including the well-documented links between the Zuma and Gupta families. The challenge for Mr. Ramaphosa will be to crush this corruption and set a higher standard in public office.

He has already had a good start on this issue. As influence in the ANC has shifted from Mr. Zuma to Mr. Ramaphosa, prosecutors have begun cracking down on the Guptas. On Wednesday, five senior executives of the Gupta business empire were arrested. They appeared in court on Thursday, facing charges of fraud and theft in connection with an alleged criminal scheme to divert money from a farm project into the pockets of the Guptas.

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Police said they were searching for two of the Gupta brothers themselves in connection with the same corruption investigation.

Cyril Ramaphosa was elected as South Africa's president in a parliamentary vote on Thursday after scandal-ridden Jacob Zuma reluctantly resigned on orders from the ruling African National Congress. Reuters
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