South Africa: Ramaphosa Has Won the Battle. but Can He Win the War?

ANC President Cyril Ramaphosa and South Africa's President Jacob Zuma.
21 December 2017

Cyril Ramaphosa is taking charge of South Africa's ruling party, the ANC, at its weakest point in post-apartheid history. Expectations couldn't be higher.

Ramaphosa ran for the leadership of the ANC on a platform of party renewal, economic recovery, and building the capacity of the state. But Jacob Zuma remains the President of South Africa and, under the constitution, can stay in office until elections in 2019. Therefore, meeting expectations on economic recovery will depend on Ramaphosa taking the presidency - and he has a number of political battles to face before that becomes reality.

To begin with, Ramaphosa and his supporters did not win a total victory at the elective conference. The presidency was only one position in the senior cadre - the co-called 'top six' - that was elected. This body is now split evenly between Ramaphosa and his allies, and those that supported his opponent Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma - Jacob Zuma's preferred successor. This creates two centres of power in the ANC, limiting what Ramaphosa will be able to achieve from within the party.

Although there is significant pressure from the electorate to remove Zuma from national office, actually doing so will be difficult. Zuma's predecessor Thabo Mbeki was removed from the national presidency before his term was up when the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the party recalled him from office following Zuma's assumption of party leadership. But this option may not be available to Ramaphosa. The split within the 'top six' and new NEC will make it difficult to present an ultimatum to Zuma. His loyalists will not want a witch hunt within the party.

Corruption and elitism within the party

Much of the tension centres on questions of corruption, the dominant political issue in South Africa at the moment. In the build up to the elective conference Gwede Mantashe - now national chairperson - admitted that "The biggest challenge from where we're sitting is the image and the reputation of the ANC. The ANC is seen as equal to corruption and looting." Ramaphosa made anti-corruption initiatives a centrepiece of his campaign, including the establishment of a judicial commission and rapid action to investigate and prosecute the guilty.

But the split within the party may undermine the credibility of these promises. Ramaphosa's problem is that some of the new 'top six' - including Deputy President David Mabuza, and Secretary General Ace Magashule - would be high on the list of those the electorate want to see investigated. Party resistance may restrict the extent to which Ramaphosa can demonstrate a comprehensive break from the past.

Corruption within the party goes far deeper than the headline cases of 'state capture' and expropriation. At a branch level, access to political power has become the primary means of access to economic resource. It is a process of selective patronage that differentiates between those who are 'in' from those who aren't. At its broadest, this type of corruption has created a mistrust of the ANC and the new economic elite that the party has created around it - including Ramaphosa himself.

Having lost out to Mbeki in the fight to succeed Mandela despite being the favourite for the job, Ramaphosa spearheaded the ANC's deployment of cadres in business. He has become one of the country's richest men, and a highly sought after board member by South Africa's largest companies across mining, telecoms, and logistics.

One of his biggest challenges will be to remove the perception of elitism as his senior position within the party and economy has given rise to mistrust from a grass roots level. The political tussle at the conference was also largely driven by a small number of the party elite being able to control large groups of delegate votes. The nature of political competition within the party is symptomatic of the ANCs electoral dominance in the early days of the nation's democracy. But this support is now far less certain, and the party cannot afford to become complacent.

Resetting the relationship with business

Ramaphosa's business dealings may mean he has to walk a fine line in censuring his colleagues for making money from politics. But it may also be a significant opportunity for the party to reset its relationship with the private sector. Under Mbeki, relations between the ANC and business were distant, but characterized by recognition of mutual dependence.

Under Zuma this relationship deteriorated, and the President demonstrated he was willing to make decisions to boost his political power irrespective of economic consequences. Ramaphosa could, for the first time, truly align the interests of business and government, without abandoning his transformative policy agenda.

At an ANC regional economic colloquium in Johannesburg in November Ramaphosa outlined his ten-point economic plan. It would deliver the party's adopted mantra of 'radical economic transformation', but through broadly neo-liberal policies on private business development and state-owned enterprise reform to allow private capital to co-invest.

He took the ethos and principles of the Freedom Charter - the 1955 statement of core ANC principles - and applied them to a modernising economy. Talk of a 'new deal', productive partnerships in the mining sector, and an emphasis on job creation in manufacturing will woo investors. The rand surged upon his election.

But Ramaphosa will not be able to deliver on the economic demands of the country until he is in the office of the presidency - and Zuma still holds many of the cards. Ramaphosa can promise his followers potential power and government positions in future, but Zuma can still offer them now.

Removing Zuma will require skilful internal party politicking, and Ramaphosa will need to limit the fallout - he cannot afford to further damage the credibility of the party before it faces the electorate in 2019. He has won the battle, but the outcome of the war is far from certain.

Chris Vandome is a research analyst in the Africa Programme for Chatham House.

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