He’s been dubbed over the years as the best leader South Africa never had.
After missing out two decades ago on becoming president, as Nelson Mandela had hoped he would be, Cyril Ramaphosa, 65, finally took power a day after Jacob Zuma resigned following 10 days of sustained pressure from the ruling African National Congress.
Ramaphosa’s election by the National Assembly crowns a career during which he founded the biggest mineworkers’ union, led talks that ended apartheid and produced the nation’s first democratic constitution, and amassed a fortune during a 14-year stint in business. He was chosen as the ANC’s deputy leader on Zuma’s ticket in 2012, and assured his ascension to the presidency by winning the top party post in December.
“Ramaphosa has always been a deal-maker and a negotiator,” said Zwelethu Jolobe, a political science lecturer at the University of Cape Town. “He isn’t the kind of person who rushes into things. He tends to have a long-term view.”
Ramaphosa, has his work cut out for him as president. He’ll need to turn around an economy that’s been hamstrung by years of mismanagement and policy uncertainty, address public outrage over a lack of jobs and tackle the corruption that’s become institutionalized during Zuma’s almost nine-year tenure. His task will be made all the more difficult by the fact that the ruling party remains deeply divided and Zuma allies occupy several key leadership positions.
Ramaphosa will spell out his priorities in his first state-of-the-nation address in Cape Town on Friday, a day after he was elected by the National Assembly and sworn in by Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng.
For now, investors are giving him the benefit of the doubt. The rand has gained the most of any currency against the dollar since he won control of the ANC on Dec. 18, and business confidence reached its highest level since October 2015 last month amid expectations that he would drive through more pragmatic and predictable policies.
Ramaphosa, who trained as a lawyer, built the National Union of Mineworkers into the country’s largest labor union and under his leadership it staged South Africa’s biggest-ever mining strike in 1987. The ANC elected him as its secretary-general in 1991, and he led the party’s team that negotiated an end to white-minority rule.
While Mandela, South Africa’s first black president, described Ramaphosa as one of the ANC’s most gifted leaders and wanted him to take over as president when he stepped down in 1999, Thabo Mbeki outmaneuvered him for the post.
Ramaphosa went into business in 1996 and later founded investment company Shanduka Group, which accumulated stakes in platinum mines operated by Lonmin Plc, and a coal-mining venture with Glencore Plc. He secured the McDonald’s Corp. franchise in South Africa and became chairman of MTN Group Ltd., Africa’s biggest mobile-phone company, and Bidvest Group Ltd., a holding company with interests spanning from catering to office supplies.
Critics have targeted Ramaphosa for his fortune and an interest in the wildlife industry after he made a 19.5 million-rand ($1.5 million) bid for a buffalo in 2012 in a country with widespread poverty. Today he owns a buffalo and antelope ranch, breeds long-horned Ugandan Ankole cattle and is an avid fly fisherman.
Ramaphosa also was criticized after police shot dead 34 protesters at Lonmin’s Marikana mine in 2012. In an email written days before the killings, he described the violence at the mine as “dastardly criminal” and urged police to take “concomitant action.” A commission of inquiry cleared him of wrongdoing.
He was named deputy president in 2014 after Zuma won a second term. His main accomplishments included spearheading efforts to ease crippling power shortages and negotiating a national minimum wage.
Ramaphosa clashed with Zuma over his decision to fire his respected finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, in March last year, and for the past year has been an outspoken critic of “state capture,” a term used in South Africa to describe allegations that Zuma has allowed the Gupta family, who are in business with one of his sons, to secure state contracts and influence cabinet appointments.
Tensions were further strained by Zuma’s decision to back his ex-wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the former head of the African Union Commission, to succeed him.
Since winning control of the ANC, Ramaphosa has overseen the appointment of a new board at the state power utility, which has been at the center of the graft scandal. His proposals include rethinking draft rules that would force mining companies to maintain 30 percent black ownership even after investors sell out; improving tax breaks to encourage manufacturing; and reducing the cost of doing business, especially for small companies.
“His ambition is for South Africa to be characterized among the developing countries as number one,” said James Motlatsi, who helped him found the mineworkers’ union in 1982 and is one of his closest confidants.
While Ramaphosa’s rise has generated optimism about South Africa’s future economic prospects, he’ll confront huge structural challenges that will take some time to address, according to John Ashbourne, Africa economist at Capital Economics Ltd. in London.
“On the first day of a Ramaphosa presidency, there is still going to be unemployment at 27 percent, drought in big parts of the country, and education reform will remain a huge political and economic problem,” he said. “Some of the optimism about this new day that happens when Ramaphosa takes over may be overstated.”
This article originally appeared in Bloomberg