Cyril Ramaphosa flyer. Photo provided

( – After a bruising battle for votes within the governing African National Congress, billionaire tycoon Cyril Matamela Ramaphosa edged out his rival in the final minutes of the ANC’s 54th national elective conference in Johannesburg, opening the prospect of his winning the presidency in 2019.

Ramaphosa, 64, won in a squeaker against Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, one-time minister, doctor, and former chair of the African Union Commission who campaigned on a platform of youth development and “radical economic transformation” aimed at transferring more wealth to the black majority. In the final days before the vote, President Zuma also added his pledge to make higher education free for all South Africans.

There were 2,440 votes for the business-friendly Ramaphosa to Dlamini-Zuma’s 2,261, indicating not only the closeness of the race but also the deep divisions within the party after 10 years under President Jacob Zuma.

Ramaphosa was briefly Nelson Mandela’s choice for deputy president but overlooked in favor of Thabo Mbeki, he left politics in 1997 to devote himself full time to business. In 2015, Forbes estimated his net worth at $450-million.

Ramaphosa’s victory this week thrilled the business sector who heard his reassuring call for “partnership” and “improved investor confidence.” The rand soared to its highest level against major currencies in months as news broke of Ramaphosa’s election.

A former labor leader, he must now renew his negotiating skills to win back the party’s main constituency which has grown increasingly skeptical of the promises of racial and economic equality that swept the party into power in 1994.

Mr. Ramaphosa’s election deals a blow to the 75-year-old Mr. Zuma, who is battling the reinstatement of charges of fraud, corruption and money laundering linked to a 1999 arms deal that were dropped before he was elected president in 2009.

Last week, a court ordered the creation of a commission of inquiry into separate allegations that the president allowed one of the country’s most prominent business families to hold undue sway over his government and steal hundreds of millions of dollars from state-owned enterprises.

Mr. Zuma and the prominent Gupta family have denied wrongdoing.

Finally, claims of alleged extramarital affairs with eight women have brought Ramaphosa supporters to his defense. Faisal Suleman of the South African Muslim Network called the behavior “a human frailty” that “Cyril is working on with his wife.” Dr. Thamsanqa Ngcana, a bishop with the Council of African Independent Churches said they did not condone immorality but “These things happen to the best of us.”

“There is forgiveness and we pray for Cyril. No doubt God will forgive him.”

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