Cyril Ramaphosa Isn’t South Africa’s Savior

The newly elected leader of the African National Congress is being treated like a messiah. But he might not even win the next election.

Cyril Ramaphosa in a press conference in London on September 25, 2017. (Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images)
Cyril Ramaphosa in a press conference in London on September 25, 2017. (Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images)

Many analysts and investors seem to have boundless faith in Cyril Ramaphosa, the newly elected leader of the African National Congress, South Africa’s ruling party. Everyone from trade unionists and journalists to currency traders celebrated his victory on Monday. Ramaphosa’s cheerleaders blithely assume that he will both win the presidency in 2019 and deal decisively with the ongoing crises that plague South Africa’s governing party and its government. But such a rosy outlook is foolish.

Ramaphosa is facing a mountain that few could scale successfully. It is crucial to understand the nature of the party that Ramaphosa has inherited to appreciate why his election as Jacob Zuma’s successor does not mean that the ANC or South Africa is soon going to be out of trouble.

Too many observers give Ramaphosa the benefit of the doubt because he is a successful businessman who has amassed enough wealth to not be tempted to dip into the state cookie jars. He is also famously credited for his role as Nelson Mandela’s chief negotiator with the apartheid regime in the tense and violent years of the early 1990s before South Africa’s first democratic elections. Before that, he was a trade union leader. On paper, then, he ought to understand all stakeholders in South Africa’s divided society: the poor, exploited workers, white beneficiaries of apartheid anxious about their place in a new society, as well as unions and the corporate elite. Sadly, his impressive CV does not change the sorry state of the party he has inherited.

For most of this year, South Africans have had to deal with an almost daily diet of news stories that chronicle the extent to which government and private-sector corruption have occurred on a scale so grand that the phrase “state capture” has become part of the national lexicon. As the investigative journalists Pieter-Louis Myburgh and Jacques Pauw have documented, private actors have captured the state with the active assistance of the current president, Jacob Zuma.

While corruption was rampant in previous administrations, the extent of Zuma’s selling of the state silverware to the highest bidders has made the magnitude and impact of the looting on his watch uniquely rapacious. The scandals surrounding the Gupta family, which immigrated to South Africa from India in the 1990s and quickly became suspiciously wealthy and politically well connected, have ranged from alleged influence over the appointment of Cabinet ministers to setting up shell companies that fraudulently funneled billions of rands from state-owned enterprises.

But it’s not just the Gupta family that has corrupted Zuma. As recent revelations have made clear, there are in fact multiple characters involved in the state capture project, including businessmen such as Roy Moodley — who had Zuma on his payroll for several months after he became president — and companies such as international management consulting firm McKinsey, which is implicated in a massive irregular government contract. Under Zuma, the criminal justice system and law enforcement agencies have been compromised, and intelligence structures have become pawns of warring factions within the ANC. Meanwhile, growing intolerance of the media and nongovernmental organizations is slowly beginning to resemble the authoritarianism of the apartheid era. Simply put, there are signs that one of Africa’s democratic success stories is turning into a mafia state.

This creep toward authoritarianism must be taken seriously. The ANC’s main leadership structure, the National Executive Committee, has been unable to halt the capture of the state. It has not taken the publicly available information about Zuma’s constitutional and political sins and used these as a basis to recall him from power. Instead, it has been left to the courts to constrain the looting in the absence of effective political oversight. This is partly because Zuma has many supporters within the party’s leadership who benefit financially from political proximity to him, and who fear that, under a new leader, their own opportunities for feeding from the state’s trough may come to an end.

The central problem Ramaphosa will face as he takes the helm of the ANC is that the party is so politically damaged that he might find himself becoming the first ANC leader to lose a general election since South Africa became a democracy in 1994. There are just 18 months until the next election, precious little time to reverse the organizational rot that set in during the Zuma years and to demonstrate to voters Ramaphosa’s willingness and ability to undo the current president’s ruinous legacy.

The challenge of slaying Zuma’s ghost will be compounded by the ANC’s peculiar attitude toward collectivism. As a liberation movement, the ANC became addicted to political rhetoric that downplayed the role of individual leaders and celebrated the idea of collective responsibility for everything done and decided by the movement. Even today, everyone in the ANC tends to talk in the passive voice or third person about corruption, never daring to name Zuma explicitly. Deference to the party is so ingrained that few leaders are willing to denounce the sins of their comrades — or their predecessors.

This emphasis on party collectivism will make it much harder for Ramaphosa to distance the party from the Zuma years. As giddy as investors may be about a businessman like Ramaphosa running the country, they should not forget that the systematic erosion of democratic institutions and large-scale corruption will have structural effects that linger for many years. The economy is growing at less than 1 percent annually, unemployment is almost 30 percent (some estimates put it higher than that), and the country remains one of the most unequal societies on the planet. Ramaphosa has no time to put a dent in these data before 2019.

Making matters worse for the new ANC leader, Zuma could remain the president of the country until mid-2019. If Zuma remains head of state while Ramaphosa heads the party, there will be a tug-of-war between the president of the ANC and the president of the country in the short term. No doubt those who have invested in Zuma — like the Gupta family — will now be desperate to loot as much as possible before their friend and patron steps down.

Ramaphosa has little chance of winning the 2019 elections for the ANC if Zuma remains in power until then, and he has so far been silent on the question of whether Zuma should be recalled. That plays into the hands of opposition parties, which have tapped into the frustrations of many ANC supporters by being more blunt about Zuma’s unfitness to rule. The two largest opposition parties — the center-right Democratic Alliance and the populist anti-capitalist Economic Freedom Fighters — will benefit electorally if Zuma isn’t axed before the next election. Meanwhile, competing centers of power — state power versus party power — will itself constitute a serious obstacle to good governance, since political infighting will delay the implementation of good policies that have gathered dust while the looting of the state has continued unabated.

As if these challenges aren’t overwhelming enough to spoil Ramaphosa’s victory lap, there are other obstacles, too. Everyone who supported Ramaphosa will now want a piece of him.

Keeping these competing stakeholders happy, without doing them political or financial favors, will be extremely difficult. He defeated his rival Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (the former chairperson of the African Union Commission and the president’s ex-wife) by less than a 4-percentage-point margin, and some of her allies are now in top leadership positions, including the new deputy president of the ANC, David Mabuza. Ramaphosa is thus surrounded by sharks who will be distrustful of him as they seek to continue their looting of state coffers.

Meanwhile, the trade unionists and communists — who are in an alliance with the ANC — are massively disappointed with President Zuma. He did not make good on his promise of a pro-poor agenda and instead became a looter-in-chief who was used and abused, with his knowledge and consent, by nefarious parasites within and outside the government. The political left therefore cautiously supported Ramaphosa, but their backing was not unequivocal or open-ended. In fact, the South African Communist Party has, for the first time, contested a by-election, rehearsing for participation in the 2019 elections independently of the ANC. This means that Ramaphosa may lead an ANC that has been divorced from the SACP, which has historically been an integral part of the movement.

For all these reasons, Ramaphosa might be wishing that he had been successfully anointed as party leader by Nelson Mandela 18 years ago rather than winning leadership of the ANC today. Back then, he would have inherited an idealistic young democracy mostly untainted by corruption. Now, he will finally lead this once glorious liberation movement, but that victory may yet be pyrrhic.

Eusebius McKaiser is a political analyst and author based in Johannesburg. He is the author of Run Racist Run: Journeys Into the Heart of Racism and the former host of a political radio show at South Africa's Radio 702. Twitter: @Eusebius

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