Following Jacob Zuma's resignation as South Africa's president, Cyril Ramaphosa, leader of the ruling African National Congress party, was elected as president by Parliament on Feb. 15. (Reuters)

Cyril Ramaphosa was elected by Parliament as South Africa’s president Thursday, marking a turning point for the country after the slow-motion collapse of the once-legendary ruling party under Jacob Zuma.

Zuma resigned on Wednesday night under mounting pressure from the party, the African National Congress, leaving both the leadership of the ANC and the continent’s second-biggest economy in the hands of Ramaphosa. 

After the parliamentary vote, Ramaphosa addressed the nation, declaring, “Our intent is to continue to improve the lives of our people.” The businessman was later sworn in as South Africa’s fifth post-apartheid president. The South African stock market jumped 4 percent on the news. 

Like Zuma, Ramaphosa rose to prominence as a young man fighting the white-minority apartheid regime in the 1970s and 1980s. He went on to become a union leader and one of the nation’s wealthiest black business executives. 

South Africa’s ruling African National Congress party demanded President Jacob Zuma step down after nine years in power. His tenure has been wracked by scandals. (The Washington Post)

The country he inherits is far from the one envisioned by Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid icon who promised shared prosperity and racial harmony as he ushered in a new era. During Zuma’s nine years in office, some of the country’s most important public institutions were politicized and weakened. Zuma was caught up in a string of corruption scandals. The economy dipped into recession. Unemployment hit a 14-year high.

The new president takes office as Cape Town, a city of 4 million people, appears to be on the verge of running out of water, a result of drought and mismanagement. The country’s courts are investigating how 144 psychiatric patients died in 2016 when they were moved from a hospital to several ill-equipped nonprofit institutions. Just hours before Ramaphosa was sworn in, news outlets reported that a manhunt was underway for one of Zuma’s sons, who has been embroiled in a fraud case involving a large dairy farm. 

In his speech, Ramaphosa, 65, played down the chaos that has buffeted the country and his party.

“The lives of our people have been improving on an ongoing basis,” he said. 

But he indicated that issues of corruption are “on our radar screen.”

As president, Ramaphosa will have to reckon with the vast economic divide that has left millions of black South Africans languishing in informal settlements while the country’s upper crust has grown fabulously wealthy.

Ramaphosa is among those who accrued large fortunes in the past two decades. He invested in the banking, mining and insurance sectors, building a fortune worth $450 million, according to a 2015 estimate by Forbes.

Cyril Ramaphosa delivers a speech in Cape Town on Feb. 11, 2018. (AP)

“The hope that existed in 1994 — that tomorrow will be better than today — has unsurprisingly given way to disillusionment and despair,” read an editorial in South Africa’s Business Day newspaper, on the challenges facing Ramaphosa.  

In the short term, Ramaphosa and other members of the ANC’s leadership will have to decide whether to pursue charges against Zuma for some of his unresolved corruption scandals. South Africa’s opposition parties have said they will press that issue. Zuma says he is innocent.

For many, Zuma’s resignation was a much-needed affirmation that after a bruising few years, South Africa’s young democracy was still intact. After calling foul on the Zuma administration time and again, the nation’s tenacious news media, civil-society groups and legal institutions finally pushed the hand of the ruling party to self-correct.

“At the beginning, the ANC was in total denial, and we actually got here,” said William Gumede, executive chairman of the Democracy Works Foundation, a nonprofit that tries to strengthen democracy. “It tells you something about civil society in the country. It’s extraordinary.”

Ramaphosa was chosen as leader of the ANC in December. His election as president Thursday was a foregone conclusion, given the party’s majority in Parliament. He will remain in office until next year’s national elections, when he is expected to run as the ANC’s candidate — and likely win.

During the last municipal elections in 2016, the ANC suffered a shocking loss in some of its former strongholds, a setback that some analysts said could portend a loss in national elections, something unimaginable only a decade ago.  

Although Zuma frequently retreated to his rural province of KwaZulu-Natal, where he lived with four wives (polygamy is still practiced by his Zulu tribe), Ramaphosa has built a different reputation. He jogged through central Cape Town in a track suit, posing for photos, just hours before being sworn in.

In a statement after Ramaphosa’s inauguration, the ANC encouraged him to begin implementing economic reforms — including a controversial policy of forcibly redistributing land, which economists have said could backfire. 

“The African National Congress has full confidence in President Ramaphosa to build on the foundation laid and focus the country on accelerating our program of fundamental and radical socio-economic transformation,” the statement said.

Land reform is one of several areas in which Ramaphosa will have to weigh the demands of the party’s more radical fringe against the desires of South Africa’s financial sector, which like many other parts of the economy remains dominated by the white minority. Unemployment nationally hovers around 30 percent and is even higher for young black citizens.

Mahr reported from Johannesburg.