13 February 2018

South Africa: If Zuma Goes Ramaphosa Must Get Down to Business Right Away

Photo: South African Presidency
President Cyril Ramaphosa hands a pen to Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng after being sworn in at a ceremony in Cape Town Thursday.
opinion

Jacob Zuma's time as president is running out. His party has officially asked him to step down. But his departure will leave his likely successor Cyril Ramaphosa with a wealth of problems to solve.

Once Jacob Zuma finally steps down, Cyril Ramaphosa will inherit a deeply divided African National Congress (ANC) which many supporters have abandoned, a public service crippled by systemic corruption and a depressed economy.

On Tuesday, February 2, Zuma refused to step down after being asked by his party to resign within 48 hours. Instead he demanded 3 months notice. Ramaphosa has thus been forced to call for a parliamentary vote of no-confidence. If such a vote succeeds, Zuma's Cabinet will be resolved. The Speaker of Parliament Baleka Mbete will then take over as interim state president and call for a parliamentary vote for a new president within 30 days. Ramaphosa is then likely to be elected as president.

Ramaphosa's first challenge will be to keep the ANC united following Zuma's divisive exit. This will not be easy. Ramaphosa was elected ANC president in December 2017 with a slim majority of fewer than 200 votes over his rival Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the former wife of Zuma and his handpicked successor.

A divided party

If Zuma and his allies engineer a revolt against his firing, there are two likely scenarios. Zuma could either remain in the ANC and he and his supporters could then resentfully stymie Ramaphosa's government, hold up his promised reform program or just make the country ungovernable.

Alternatively, Zuma could strike out and form his own party to challenge Ramaphosa's ANC, just as some supporters of former President Thabo Mbeki, when he was ousted in 2007, formed their own party, the Congress of the People (Cope). Such a party would most likely be based in rural provinces, including sizeable chunks of KwaZulu Natal supporters, as well as in former provinces run by Zuma allies, like the Free State, Northwest and Mpumalanga. If Zuma secures enough votes in the 2019 elections, he and his supporters could frustrate attempts to prosecute himself and his and his allies for corruption.

Fighting corruption

Ramaphosa will also have to show that he is serious by pushing for the prosecution of key ANC figures involved in corruption, including Zuma.

He will also have to clean up corruption and inefficiencies in the country's money guzzling state-owned entities (SOEs), especially the large ones such as state energy utility Eskom, South African Airways (SAA), arms manufacturer Denel and oil company PetroSA. This will mean firing Zuma allies from boards and executives and bringing in fresh blood, which again may undermine Ramaphosa's attempt to secure unity in the ANC.

South Africa's distressed economy plunged into recession in the first quarter of last year, after global rating agencies assigned the country junk status and unemployment was close to 30%, the highest level since the end of apartheid. Local and international business confidence will be crucial to turn around the economy.

Fixing the economy

Ramaphosa is likely to try to build a growth partnership between government, business and trade unions, where each of the groups agree on a set of minimum obligations that would boost investor confidence.

Ramaphosa has promised to "rebuild the confidence of our people in the public institutions of our country and to restore the credibility of those who are elected to serve in those institutions." Although Ramaphosa will want to put in place his own team as cabinet members, for the sake of maintaining unity he may be forced to include some Zuma supporters in his team.

Ramaphosa is the ANC and South Africa's most experienced political fixer. He dealt with some of the most intractable crises during apartheid as the mineworkers' union leader, tackled deadlocks in the negotiations for a democratic South Africa with the Nationalist Party of apartheid when he was the ANC's chief negotiator, before chairing the country's constitution-making process.

He is the first ANC leader, who has not risen through the ranks of the party but who had to fight hard all the way to secure high positions. He is also the first ANC leader who has run complex organisations outside politics, picking up valuable management skills. Nevertheless, Ramaphosa will have to dig deep into his intellectual reservoir and call on all his experience in securing consensus to unite the ANC, bring back lost supporters, boost public and market confidence, restore the fortunes of the economy, and tackle corruption. On paper, he is the right man for the right job at the right time.

William Gumede is Chairman of the Democracy Works Foundation; and author of Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times 

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