Ramaphosa faces new challenges as head of South Africa's struggling ANC

South African deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa was narrowly elected head of the African National Congress on Dec 18.
South African deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa was narrowly elected head of the African National Congress on Dec 18. PHOTO: REUTERS

JOHANNESBURG (AFP) - South African deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa was facing wide-ranging challenges on Tuesday (Dec 19) after being elected to lead South Africa's ruling party just as it grapples with corruption allegations and disunity.

He was narrowly elected head of the African National Congress on Monday, winning a bruising race that exposed rifts within the organisation that led the fight against apartheid.

Thousands of raucous Ramaphosa supporters sang and chanted in the conference hall as rival backers of defeated candidate Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma appeared dejected.

Mr Ramaphosa won 2,440 votes to Ms Dlamini-Zuma's 2,261.

The victory puts Mr Ramaphosa in line to succeed President Jacob Zuma, whose reign has been plagued by corruption scandals, a slowing economy and anger at the once-omnipotent party.

He will likely enjoy a honeymoon period - the rand currency was up 3 per cent against the dollar by Monday evening, suggesting investor confidence in the politician-turned-businessmen.

But he still faces unenviable challenges.

Political analyst Richard Calland warned that Mr Ramaphosa would be politically constrained as long as Mr Zuma remains president.

Though Mr Zuma stepped down as party chief at the conference, his term as head of state runs until 2019 when elections are due.

"The winner has inherited a mix blessing, possibly a poisoned chalice," Mr Calland told AFP.

Mr Ramaphosa will be confronted with decisions about what public sector cuts to make to balance the budget and how to battle Zuma-era corruption.

"It's going to be very difficult for him to manoeuvre, he'll have to reach compromise at every step," Mr Calland added.

A vast image of the ANC's new leader was unfurled as long applause and loud singing greeted the news at the party conference venue outside Johannesburg.

Outside the hall, ANC supporters blocked a road leading to the conference centre, dancing and singing party songs.

Mr Ramaphosa is due to make his first speech as leader on Wednesday as the conference draws to a close.

President Zuma was seen as backing Ms Dlamini-Zuma, allegedly to secure protection from prosecution on graft charges after he leaves office.

But his loyalists did win senior positions in the vote, including Mr David Mabuza as party deputy chief, meaning Mr Ramaphosa is likely to face strong internal opposition to his pro-business reform agenda.

"I hope you will cooperate with the new leadership... as we move to the 2019 elections," Ms Baleka Mbete, outgoing party chairwoman, told delegates.

The ANC, which has ruled since 1994 when Mr Nelson Mandela won the first multi-racial vote, could struggle to retain its grip on power in the next election due to falling public support.

Mr Ramaphosa, 65, is a former trade unionist leader who led talks to end white-minority rule in the early 1990s and then became a multi-millionaire businessman before returning to politics.

He is often accused of failing to confront Mr Zuma while serving as his deputy since 2014.

"Ramaphosa will work to bring back the principles of liberal politics in the party," Dr Amanda Gouws, politics professor at Stellenbosch University, said.

"The outcome of the vote was not easy to call. What is at stake here is unity - the new leaders need to forge unity and rebuild the image of the party."

Soaring unemployment and state corruption have fuelled frustration at the ANC among millions of poor black South Africans who face dire housing, inadequate education and continuing racial inequality.

The main opposition Democratic Alliance party said that the ANC was "held together only by the glue of patronage and corruption, and Cyril Ramaphosa is just a new face to the same old ANC".