Shortly before the massacre ― the worst police killing since the end of apartheid - Ramaphosa had called for a crackdown on the strikers, whom he accused of "dastardly criminal" behaviour. He was the young successor Mr. Mandela preferred, but the ANC's elders favoured Thabo Mbeki.
When Mandela's presidency came to a close, he made it clear that he wanted Ramaphosa to succeed him.
Even so, the 65-year-old Ramaphosa delivered a measured, conciliatory speech to lawmakers in a chamber that had been the scene of heckling and sometimes scuffles during appearances by Zuma, who resigned late Wednesday after protracted discussions with ANC leaders who told him to step down or face a parliamentary motion of no confidence. It forced Jacob Zuma to resign.
Ramaphosa, the leader of the ruling African National Congress, is likely to be elected President when parliament meets in Cape Town later on Thursday.
Zuma had been in a power struggle with Ramaphosa, his deputy president.
Mr Ramaphosa was the only candidate nominated for election after two opposition parties said they would not participate.
The chaotic political crisis of recent days has further damaged the ANC, angering many South Africans who are calling for more transparency in the way the party operates.
South Africa's ethics watchdog, the Public Protector, published a damning report in October 2016, finding that the state-owned electricity monopoly had awarded a massive coal order to a then-Gupta linked business at well above market prices.
"I believe we succumbed to WMC (white monopoly capital) and the western agents who are hell-bent on destroying our country and South Africa will never prosper if we still consider ourselves as puppets of the West and ball boys of those in Stellenbosch who have all of a sudden have an interest in the well-being of this country".
Other corruption allegations have centred on the three Gupta brothers, who are accused of unfairly obtaining lucrative government contracts and even being able to choose Mr Zuma's ministerial appointments. Ahead of 2019 elections, Ramaphosa also has the tough task of rebuilding a ruling party whose moral stature has diminished since it took power at the end of white minority rule in 1994. Levels of violent crime are among the highest in the world, with poor South Africans suffering the most.
Without some re-energizing of the country, and without turning skeptical youths (half of the country, demographically) into believers willing to reject criminal pursuits for the possibility of jobs, South Africa will find it hard to rejuvenate itself after the lost years of Mr. Zuma.
But if it wants to retain that all-important investor confidence, the party also needs to convince business that South Africa will not go down the road already trodden by Zimbabwe.
In 2006, while being tried on charges of raping an HIV-positive family friend, Zuma was widely criticized after testifying he took a shower after extramarital sex to lower the risk of AIDS.
Members of a smaller opposition party walked out of parliament before the election, saying the ANC plan to choose a new president was "illegitimate".