Kgalema Motlanthe (photo, from nouvelobs.com), the deputy leader of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) party, has been sworn in as president, replacing Thabo Mbeki who resigned.
The interim president’s first task will be to ensure a smooth political transition, say correspondents, given the talk of feuding and divisions within his party.
As he retained key cabinet figures, like Trevor Manuel, the finance minister, Mr Motlanthe said his focus was continuity.
The controversial health minister was among those he replaced.
Mr Mbeki’s departure had led to a flurry of 11 cabinet resignations, causing 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”.
‘Turbulent global economy’
Earlier on Thursday, the ANC veteran won three-quarters of the votes cast by MPs in a secret ballot, in parliament in Cape Town.
Mr Motlanthe said he was “deeply humbled” by the outcome and would maintain the overall shape of Mr Mbeki’s cabinet.
Recognising Mr Manuel’s role in leading the nation to sustained growth, the interim president retained him in his post.
“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.
Although the enterprise minister was replaced, Mr Mbeki’s foreign and minerals ministers were kept on.
Manto Tshabalala-Msimang (photo, from washingtonpost.com), Mr Mbeki’s maverick health minister, was also demoted. She had drawn criticism because in the country with the highest number of infected people in the world, she espoused the value of lemons, garlic and beetroot instead of retroviral medicines to combat the spread of Aids.
Though Mrs Tshabalala-Msimang will remain in the cabinet as a minister in the presidency, she won’t have specific responsibilities.
The new president, seen as a figure who can help ease tensions between supporters of Mr Mbeki and Mr Zuma, will serve until polls next year.
Jacob Zuma is widely expected to win the polls and become president.
As he is not an MP, Mr Zuma was not eligible to be elected president. He watched Thursday’s vote from the public gallery.
And when the chief justice announced that Mr Motlanthe had secured 269 of 360 votes cast, there were loud cheers in the national assembly.
In a parliament heavily-dominated by the ANC, Mr Motlanthe’s challenger, Joe Seremane, of the opposition Democratic Alliance, got just 50 votes.
But Peter Biles, BBC’s South Africa correspondent said that 41 papers were spoiled, which suggests a protest by some parliamentarians.
Mr Biles added that Mr Motlanthe is a long-serving member of the party hierarchy and a man generally seen as a safe pair of hands.
He was imprisoned on Robben Island during the apartheid years, along with Nelson Mandela and in 1987, after his release, 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.
Invited to attend the parliamentary session, Mr Mbeki declined.
Earlier, his resignation has been described as “devastating” by Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwean president (photo).
During months of negotiations that recently led to a power-sharing agreement in Zimbabwe, Mr Mbeki was the key mediator.
“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.
Earlier this month, corruption charges against Mr Zuma were thrown out by a court on a legal technicality, and it is 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.