Cyril Ramaphosa became South Africa’s fifth head of state following his unopposed election in the National Assembly on Wednesday afternoon.
Ramaphosa replaces Jacob Zuma, who resigned from office late on Wednesday night following a decision by the governing ANC’s national executive committee that he should make way for the newly elected president of the party.
Ramaphosa’s election as the president of the republic comes at a time when the governing ANC is not only faced with the challenges of rising unemployment, high levels of poverty and growing inequality, but the party is also in a state of renewing itself following a bruising political battle in the build-up to last December’s national elective conference.
Opposition parties moved quickly to indicate that while they welcomed the changes brought about by the ANC, especially Ramaphosa’s election, they warned that more needed to be done to address the country’s problems than just removing Zuma.
The composition of Ramaphosa’s Cabinet will be closely scrutinised and MPs didn’t mince their words when it came to their expectations of the men and women that Ramaphosa will appoint to his executive.
In the short speech he gave in the House following his election, Ramaphosa seem to have struck the right chord as he not only reached out to the opposition parties but promised to tackle corruption and state capture.
“The issues that you have raised; issues that have to do with corruption, issues of how we can straighten our state-owned enterprises and how we deal with state capture are issues that are on our radar screen,” he said in response to the Inkatha Freedom’s Party Narend Singh.
“Those are issues that we are going to be addressing and tomorrow we will also have an opportunity to outline some of the steps that we are going to be taking,” added Ramaphosa, who will be delivering his first state of the nation address on Friday night.
“Yes, Reverend Meshoe, we will pay heed to the advice that you are giving. We will choose a great team, that’s precisely what our people deserve – to have a team that will work in their interests,” said Ramaphosa in response to the African Christian Democratic Party’s Kenneth Meshoe.
This response drew the loudest applause of the day. Not only the tone of Ramaphosa’s address which was in the main a response to the congratulatory messages of the opposition parties, its message was also different to that of his predecessor.
For instance, he responded warmly to the National Freedom Party’s Nhlanhla Khubisa who said patriotism was at the heart of the matter.
“That is precisely what I as the President of the Republic would want to do. South Africa must come first in everything that we all do,” he said, a significant shift from Zuma who once said the ANC was more of a priority than the country.
Singh had made it clear that while they realised Ramaphosa has no magic wand to “cure the ills of past”, they expected him to do the right things going forward.
“You will rid us of the scourge of corruption, you will inspire hope in all South Africans and international investors, you will remove from your Cabinet all those who are allegedly involved in state capture and incompetent ministers …” said Singh to loud applause in the House.
Singh continued that Ramaphosa should appoint the head of the National Prosecuting Authority soon and ring changes at the flailing state-owned enterprises to make them organs of development.
“You will provide certainty on free education at tertiary level which was pronounced by the former president, address the scourge of crime and gangsterism and provide opportunity to all South Africans. We hope that you will deal with the land impasse as soon as possible,” added Singh, who warned that his party was giving Ramaphosa the benefit of the doubt and its support was not carte blanche.
DA leader Mmusi Maimane who was the first to congratulate Ramaphosa from the podium, said it would be erroneous to say the problem of South Africa over the past nine years has been Jacob Zuma. “You [ANC], sitting on this side couldn’t even tell him what he’d done wrong,” he said to loud cheers from the opposition and awkward silence from the ANC benches.
“We don’t have a Jacob Zuma problem, we have an ANC problem. This is the moment when we must move Section 50 and go back to the people of South Africa and ask for a fresh mandate,” added Maimane, whose party has tabled a motion calling for the dissolution of the National Assembly.
This is provided for in Section 50 of the Constitution.
Among Ramaphosa’s priorities is a meeting with all political parties to find a better way of working together, he said.
“And I will do all this as a servant of our people because I do believe that when one is elected in this type of position, you basically become a servant of the people of South Africa, and I will seek to execute that task with humility, with faithfulness and with dignity as well. That is what I will seek to do,” he vowed.
Ramaphosa spoke for 14 minutes and 55 seconds and not once did he mention, acknowledge or refer to his predecessor Zuma.
The session – which was partly chaired by Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng for the election of the new president – had plenty of lighter moments.
It started with a “sing off” between ANC and EFF MPs, as the majority party MPs sang a pro-Ramaphosa song “Phakama Ramaphosa – Rise Ramaphosa” – while the EFF sang about Zuma’s downfall.
The ANC again broke into song amid applause after Ramaphosa was declared the president-elect, leading to Mogoeng quipping: “I’m trying to adapt to the environment, In a court of law, no singing is allowed.”
Another fun moment was when Singh explained that he was delivering his speech in place of IFP leader Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi whose plane from Durban to Cape Town was “recalled” this morning.
In response, Ramaphosa joked that he was sorry about the recall.
“Recall” has been the buzzword in the country since the ANC’s elective conference where Ramaphosa was elected the ANC’s president, raising expectations that Zuma would be “recalled” by the party from the highest office in the land.
The EFF walked out of the session before the proceedings unfolded as its MPs called for the dissolution of the National Assembly and fresh elections.
EFF leader Julius Malema argued that the National Assembly was not in a position to elect a president because of the Constitutional Court finding that it had failed in its duty to hold Zuma to account. He said both the House and the candidate for president were not fit to elect or be elected.