South Africa Presidents – Past and Present [Updated]

South Africa, a nation marked by its rich history and diverse culture, has seen a succession of leaders who have played pivotal roles in shaping the country’s destiny. From the tumultuous days of apartheid to the era of post-apartheid reconciliation, South Africa’s presidents have led the nation through periods of significant change and progress.

In this article, we will embark on a journey through the list of South Africa’s presidents, both past and present, exploring their contributions to the nation’s development.

Charles Robberts Swart (1961-1967):

Charles Robberts Swart, the last ceremonial head of state under the Union of South Africa, served as the first president in the Republic of South Africa from 1961 to 1967. His presidency marked the early years of the apartheid era, a dark period characterized by institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination. Swart’s presidency was largely symbolic, as executive power rested with the Prime Minister during this time.

Balthazar Johannes Vorster (1967-1978):

Balthazar Johannes Vorster, often known as John Vorster, succeeded Swart and held the presidency from 1967 to 1978. Vorster played a significant role in consolidating apartheid policies, tightening state control, and suppressing opposition. His presidency faced both internal and external challenges, including protests against apartheid and increased international isolation.

Marais Viljoen (1979-1984):

Marais Viljoen served as the last ceremonial president under the apartheid regime from 1979 to 1984. His tenure witnessed heightened anti-apartheid activism both domestically and internationally. Despite being a symbolic figurehead, Viljoen faced mounting pressure to address the deep-seated issues within the country.

P.W. Botha (1984-1989):

Pik Botha, as he was commonly known, assumed the presidency during a period of heightened domestic unrest and international condemnation of apartheid. Botha attempted limited reforms, but his unwillingness to dismantle apartheid led to continued turmoil. Botha resigned as president in 1989, paving the way for a new era in South Africa’s political landscape.

F.W. de Klerk (1989-1994):

F.W. de Klerk, the successor to Botha, played a pivotal role in dismantling apartheid. As president from 1989 to 1994, de Klerk initiated negotiations to end apartheid, released Nelson Mandela from prison, and worked towards establishing a multiracial democracy. His collaboration with Mandela earned them both the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.

Nelson Mandela (1994-1999):

Nelson Mandela, an iconic figure in South Africa’s history, became the country’s first black president in 1994. Mandela’s presidency marked the end of apartheid and the beginning of a new era characterized by reconciliation and nation-building. His leadership was instrumental in fostering unity among South Africa’s diverse population.

Thabo Mbeki (1999-2008):

Thabo Mbeki succeeded Mandela as president, serving from 1999 to 2008. Mbeki continued Mandela’s legacy, focusing on economic development, HIV/AIDS awareness, and foreign relations. However, his presidency was also marked by controversy, particularly regarding his stance on HIV/AIDS and his leadership style.

Kgalema Motlanthe (2008-2009):

Kgalema Motlanthe served as South Africa’s president on an interim basis following Mbeki’s resignation in 2008. His brief tenure aimed at stabilizing the political landscape before the next general elections.

Jacob Zuma (2009-2018):

Jacob Zuma’s presidency was marred by allegations of corruption and economic challenges. Despite early promises of change, Zuma faced widespread criticism for his handling of various issues, leading to his resignation in 2018.

Cyril Ramaphosa (2018-present):

Cyril Ramaphosa, a former anti-apartheid activist and businessman, assumed the presidency in 2018. His presidency has focused on addressing corruption, revitalizing the economy, and fostering social cohesion. Ramaphosa faces the ongoing challenge of balancing the demands of a diverse nation while steering South Africa towards a more prosperous and inclusive future.


South Africa’s presidential history reflects the nation’s journey from the divisive era of apartheid to the establishment of a democratic, multiracial society. Each president has played a unique role in shaping the country’s trajectory, facing distinct challenges and leaving a lasting impact on the nation’s development. As South Africa continues to navigate its path forward, the legacies of these leaders will undoubtedly influence the course of the nation’s history for years to come.