19 February 2018

Africa: South Africa Gets a Second Chance

With Cyril Ramaphosa ascending to the presidency, the country has been given its best chance, out of what was viable and available in the ANC leadership, to recover from over a decade of mismanagement and looting during Jacob Zuma's tenure.

The unseating of Jacob Zuma in South Africa is a bigger change than the overthrow of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Mugabe was ousted by a military coup in all but name after 37 years in power. On the face of it a massive change, except that his successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa is hardly any different. The same cannot be said for South Africa. The difference between newly-elected President Cyril Ramaphosa and the recalled Jacob Zuma is vast.

Ramaphosa was a key negotiator in ending apartheid and he is one of the architects of the Constitution. He had a devout upbringing; he was a model student and a high achiever at school. He is a billionaire in his own right, who has built substantial wealth and invested wisely.

The origins of his wealth lie in the pioneering attempts at Black Economic Empowerment, which largely failed as the beneficiaries soon found themselves hoodwinked by corporate South Africa. His subsequent success was in private equity, not through siphoning off public funds and grubby kickbacks on inflated government contracts as is the case with Zuma's family and crony capitalists. Ramaphosa has business acumen and a grasp of economics.

The optimism was palpable at the opening of parliament last week and in fact throughout the night of Ramaphosa's first State of the Nation address (SONA). What lies behind the euphoria in the assembly and the media is that Ramaphosa has reconnected South Africans with the spirit of the Mandela years, a return to respect for the constitutional democracy he helped author, when hope triumphed over despair and the country suddenly gained a new lease on life. To borrow a phrase from a reprehensible source, Ramaphosa has been given the chance "to make South Africa great again". I think it is unlikely, as many on the left are predicting, that he will become our Donald Trump, legalising personal, venal pursuits and handing the country over to big business.

He is uniquely positioned right now, with the support of business, but also the trade unions and the South African Communist Party. Paradoxically, the official opposition see a man they feel they can finally work with. Better still, he was not contaminated by the Thabo Mbeki presidency. He is not even tainted by the notorious Arms Deal from those years.

Attempts to sully him for being the dependable deputy president to Zuma for all these years and for not speaking out until the eleventh hour will probably not stick for long. Most voters appear to have accepted that Ramaphosa had no option but to appear loyal and keep dissent internal if he was to have a shot at the presidency.

Read:President Jacob Zuma resigns as President of South Africa: full statement

He did argue in cabinet against Zuma on various catastrophic decisions the incumbent took, such as firing the finance minister. Ramaphosa also said publicly he believed Fezekile Kuzwayo even though Zuma was acquitted of her rape. He first broke ranks in late 2016 by subtly, though visibly supporting Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, who was the only thing left standing between Zuma and the state coffers. In the run-up to the ANC's electoral conference, Ramaphosa became bolder, more outspoken and pointed about corruption in the state.

At the moment, he is afforded the luxury of double-speak and he needs to make the most of it. When early on in his maiden speech as president, he thanked Jacob Zuma for his service and said that they had "exchanged wonderful pleasantries", the Zuma faction were grateful, while everyone else understood it was just politics, and some hissed.

Ramaphosa's father was a policeman during apartheid, and yet he remained a pillar of the community, looked up to and respected. Now his son is going to have to pull off a similar feat. Years of party loyalty, slavishly toeing the line and remaining mum, has allowed him to sell himself to the ANC as more of a unifier than a splitter. However, if his presidency is to have any success he is going to have to use the baton to end the culture of impunity in the party.

Zuma must be prosecuted. His accomplices must be removed from office, investigated, their ill-gotten gains returned to the state, and a number of them ought to be sent to jail.

File picture: South African president Jacob Zuma reacts as he answers questions from opposition parties in parliament, Cape Town, 06 August 2015. President Zuma faces widespread criticism in parliament with questions being raised over alleged, a national electricity crisis out of control, rising unemployment and an ailing economy topping the list of failures under his tenure. Photo: ANP/EPA/Nic Bothma

The calculation will be to what extent such decisive action will play favourably with the electorate. He needs to win external voter support to compensate and strengthen him in the face of internal alienation. If he can reverse the party's fortunes, especially in Gauteng, he will be vindicated. Otherwise the ANC will continue to decline electorally. Ramaphosa is going to be hard pressed in Kwazulu-Natal, Zuma's home base, which during the last election cycles shored up the party as it lost ground elsewhere in the country.

South Africans will have to wait and see and hope that playing the inside game hasn't become a habit he can't break.

This is the first of a series of articles on what a Ramaphosa presidency could mean for South Africa

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