Cape Town — South Africa witnessed a watershed transition in political leadership today when a succession of governing party leaders who were formerly in exile or prison was replaced by a leader of the internal resistance to apartheid.
Cyril Ramaphosa, 65, a lawyer who first made his name in the 1980s by organising workers in the country's mining industry into its most powerful union, won the presidency of the governing African National Congress (ANC) at its five-yearly conference in Johannesburg.
This puts him in line to become South Africa's president, succeeding Nelson Mandela – who served 27 years in prison, Thabo Mbeki – who fought apartheid from exile, and Jacob Zuma – who served time both in prison and in exile.
Ramaphosa won 2440 votes from conference delegates, against 2261 votes for Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, immediate past chair of the African Union Commission and a cabinet minister under presidents Mandela and Mbeki.
But unless the ANC replaces President Zuma with Ramaphosa before the expiry of the current administration's term in 2019, Ramaphosa's accession to the presidency of the country is not as sure a bet as was the case with his predecessors.
Support for the party has been on decline under Zuma's presidency, which has been marked by corruption scandals, a slowing of economic growth and rising unemployment.
Most observers consider an outright defeat of the ANC at the 2019 election as unlikely, but the country has already entered an era of coalition politics. At municipal elections in 2016. the party lost power to opposition coalitions in two of the three biggest metropolitan areas.
The yawning chasm that has opened up in the party during the Zuma years is reflected in the election of the party's top six officials, posing a difficult challenge to Ramaphosa if he is to keep his vow to clean up the party and the government.
Of the top six elected on Monday, three were on Dlamini-Zuma's "slate" and have been seen as Zuma supporters in recent years. The deputy secretary-general, Jessie Duarte, was usually to be found in the Zuma camp during the party's travails.
The party deputy president, David Mabuza, is premier of the corruption-riddled Mpumalanga province. The secretary-general, Ace Magashule of Free State province, is one of the politicians most closely associated with the Gupta brothers, who have been at the heart of efforts to "capture" state business with the assistance of corrupt politicians and civil servants.
In contrast, the new party chair, Gwede Mantashe, has a reputation as a tough-talking former secretary-general who wants to root out corruption and reform party structures, while Paul Mashatile, the new treasurer-general, is a leader in Gauteng province, which includes Johannesburg and Pretoria and where the party has been opposed to Jacob Zuma.
The election results for the five officials who will serve with Ramaphosa in the party:
David Mabuza - 2538
Lindiwe Sisulu - 2159
Gwede Mantashe - 2418
Nathi Mthethwa - 2269
Senzo Mchunu - 2336
Ace Magashule - 2360
Jessie Duarte - 2474
Zingiswa Losi - 2213
Paul Mashatile - 2517
Maite Nkoana-Mashabane - 2178
This report has been updated since first published to correct the description of the party deputy president, David Mabuza.