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South Africa gets new president

A mild-mannered anti-apartheid activist on Thursday became the third president of South Africa since the end of white rule, vowing to foster unity in a country shaken by a power feud between its past and future leaders.

Kgalema Motlanthe is widely seen as a caretaker president until next year's elections, when African National Congress leader Jacob Zuma is expected to take the helm.

In the meantime, Motlanthe faces an uphill struggle to restore the nation's battered international standing and regroup the government after a mass walkout in solidarity with President Thabo Mbeki, who was ousted last weekend.

“We live in challenging times. We see before us many mountains that are yet to be climbed, and numerous rivers that still need to be crossed,” Motlanthe, 59, told parliament.

Zuma, 66, watched from the sidelines. The erstwhile guerrilla leader was not eligible for the presidency because he was not a legislator. Zuma, the ANC presidential candidate next year, will likely win in a landslide, given the ruling party's huge majority.

This is despite his having been accused of corruption in an arms deal scandal and having stood trial on charges that he raped the HIV-positive daughter of a friend. Zuma was acquitted of rape but could face trial on corruption charges.

Motlanthe, the ANC deputy president, said the government would continue its assault on poverty, unemployment and crime — all areas in which Mbeki is accused of failing.

“We will not allow the stability of our democratic order to be compromised,” Motlanthe insisted.

Motlanthe is one of the few figures in the ANC leadership to have weathered the past year's vicious political battle with friends in the camps of both Zuma and Mbeki, though he has remained loyal to Zuma.

Born in Johannesburg, he was a fighter in the ANC's underground military wing in the apartheid era and was jailed for 10 years with Nelson Mandela and Zuma. He later became the National Union of Mineworkers' secretary-general.

Motlanthe's first task was to replace Cabinet ministers who quit. He said highly respected Finance Minister Trevor Manuel, whose rumored departure caused the stock market to plummet Tuesday, would remain in office.

Motlanthe named inexperienced politicians to take over the key portfolios of security and justice — in a country where the police struggle to cope with a murder rate of more than 50 a day.

Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, notorious for her mistrust of AIDS medicines and promotion of garlic and beetroot as remedies, was shifted to minister in the presidency, a move welcomed by health activists and the medical profession.

South Africa has an estimated 5.4 million people infected with the AIDS virus, the highest number in the world, and Mbeki and his ally Tshabalala-Msimang were long criticized for playing down the scale of the disaster.

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