Kgalema Motlanthe, the deputy leader of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) party, has been sworn in as president, replacing Thabo Mbeki. Correspondents say Mr Motlanthe’s first task will be to ensure a smooth political transition given the talk of feuding and divisions within his party.
He said his focus was continuity as he retained key cabinet figures such as the finance minister, Trevor Manuel. But the controversial health minister was among those he replaced.
Mr Mbeki announced his resignation on Sunday amid claims – which he denies – of political interference in a corruption case against the ANC leader, Jacob Zuma. The departure had led to a flurry of 11 cabinet resignations which caused uncertainty on the markets.
In his first speech as president, Mr Motlanthe vowed that he would “not allow the stability of our democratic order to be compromised”. The ANC veteran won three-quarters of the votes cast by MPs in a secret ballot in parliament in Cape Town earlier on Thursday.
Mr Motlanthe said he was “deeply humbled” by the outcome and would maintain the overall shape of Mr Mbeki’s cabinet. The interim president retained Mr Manuel in his post, recognising his role in leading the nation to sustained growth. “In a turbulent global economy, we will remain true to the policies that have kept South Africa steady, and that have ensured sustained growth,” said Mr Motlanthe. Mr Mbeki’s foreign and minerals ministers were also kept on, but the enterprise minister was replaced. Also demoted was Mr Mbeki’s maverick Health Minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. She had drawn criticism for espousing the value of lemons, garlic and beetroot instead of antiretroviral medicines to combat the spread of Aids in a country with the highest number of infected people in the world. Mrs Tshabalala-Msimang will remain in the cabinet as a minister in the presidency without specific responsibilities.
The new president is seen as a figure who can help ease tensions between supporters of Mr Mbeki and Mr Zuma. He will serve until polls next year, when Mr Zuma is widely expected to become president. Mr Zuma, who is not an MP and so was not eligible to be elected president, watched Thursday’s vote from the public gallery. There were loud cheers in the national assembly as the chief justice announced that Mr Motlanthe had secured 269 of 360 votes cast. His challenger, Joe Seremane, of the opposition Democratic Alliance, got just 50 votes in a parliament heavily-dominated by the ANC. However, there were 41 spoiled papers, suggesting a protest by some parliamentarians, the BBC’s Southern Africa correspondent Peter Biles says.
Mr Motlanthe is a long-serving member of the party hierarchy and a man generally seen as a safe pair of hands, our correspondent says. During the apartheid years, he was imprisoned on Robben Island along with Nelson Mandela. After his release in 1987, he became a top official of the National Union of Mineworkers and then the ANC, although he only became an MP in May this year. Mr Mbeki had been invited to attend the parliamentary session, but declined.
Earlier, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe described Mr Mbeki’s resignation as “devastating”. Mr Mbeki was the key mediator during months of negotiations that recently led to a power-sharing agreement in Zimbabwe. “It’s devastating news that President Mbeki is no longer president… but that is the action of the South African people,” he was quoted as saying by Zimbabwe’s state-run Herald newspaper. “Who are we to judge them? But it is very disturbing.” It is not clear whether Mr Mbeki will continue with his role.
Corruption charges against Mr Zuma were thrown out by a court earlier this month on a legal technicality. It remains unclear whether they will be pressed for a third time. His supporters have long claimed that a series of charges against him were part of a plot to stop him becoming president.