‘Where There Has Been Wrongdoing There Will Be Accountability’

South Africa’s president tells Foreign Policy about his plans to tackle corruption, redistribute land, and restore the country’s moral leadership.

South African President  Cyril Ramaphosa addresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept. 25.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept. 25. (John Moore/Getty Images)

In February, Cyril Ramaphosa became president of South Africa after Jacob Zuma, his corruption-tainted predecessor, stepped down amid mounting scandals. While many South Africans and international observers were encouraged by his accession, Ramaphosa faces tough challenges: an economy in recession, a brewing battle over land reform, and opposition from some corners of his deeply divided party, the African National Congress. This week, Foreign Policy’s editor in chief, Jonathan Tepperman, sat down with Ramaphosa on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York to discuss his vision for South Africa’s future. What follows is an excerpt of their conversation, edited for grammar and concision.

Jonathan Tepperman: China has become a key player throughout Africa. Some countries have welcomed its involvement, while others see it as a new form of imperialism. How do you see China’s role in South Africa and the region?

Cyril Ramaphosa: Our relationship with China is based on mutual respect. I reject this notion that a new colonialism is on the rise, and I look at what we can gain out of the relationship with China. But we do not want it to come at their expense; we want a mutual, beneficial, win-win type of outcome. Of course, from time to time they play hardball, but that’s where we need to be wide awake and look after our own interest. I come from the school that says you should be able to use other people’s money to make money. But you should also know that it doesn’t come for free.

JT: During the Obama years, South Africa had a very strong relationship with the United States. Now we have a U.S. president who says nasty things about Africa and tweets misinformation about the killing of white farmers in your country. How would you describe U.S.-South Africa relations today, and do you think things can improve under the current administration—or are you waiting until 2020?

CR: We value our relationship with the United States. We benefit a lot from it, and hopefully they do, too. Under AGOA [the African Growth and Opportunity Act], we export automobiles to them, but our exports also lead to the creation of jobs in the United States. And we also get quite a lot of support from the United States.

JT: And that has not been affected by this administration?

CR: That has not been affected. Despite what has been tweeted in the past, the relationship has not been negatively affected. But we would like to have it strengthened.

JT: How concerned are you about stability in your neighbor Zimbabwe? Do you think the country can make a full transition to democracy, or are you worried it will backslide toward autocracy?

CR: I’m very confident about the transition that’s happening in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe really has turned a corner under President Emmerson Mnangagwa. After a number of people were killed during the [July 2018] election, he instituted a commission of inquiry to come and investigate what happened, and he said he would live and abide by what they recommend. That represents a change. And he wants to transform the economy. So I think the president needs to be given the chance.

JT: When you became president of South Africa, there was a huge sense of relief that the corruption of the Zuma era was finally in the past. But since then, South African journalists and the New York Times have reported that many corrupt Zuma-era officials remain in government. Why should foreign investors take a risk on South Africa today, given that no one has been jailed for grand-scale corruption?

CR: People should have confidence; we are doing everything methodically. We have instituted a commission of inquiry, which is going through all the corrupt acts that happened in the past, and that needs to be given the chance. Because then we will be able to see who is liable for prosecution and who should be sent to jail.

JT: So prosecutions are coming?

CR: Oh, they will definitely come. Where there has been malfeasance and wrongdoing there will be accountability and there will be serious jail time. Now people are in a hurry—they want to see people rotting in jail immediately. But that’s not how the system works. And you must also remember that quite a lot of rot set into our institutions: the police, the prosecuting authority, and so on. We are correcting all that. I often tell people that, you know, the die has been cast and people should not be too impatient because it is going to happen. Right now we are on a much better trajectory than we were in the past. Because we’re not on a slide downward; we’re on a climb upward.

JT: As we alluded to earlier, your government’s plans for land reform have been the subject of a lot of disinformation. But how will South Africa pull it off without going down the road of Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe?

CR: First, we’re not going to allow land grabs. Second, we’re not going to allow land to be redistributed to elites, to party hacks. We are going to ensure that redistribution of land has a great impact on the ordinary masses of our people because they are the ones who need it the most. We’ve got to transform the economy and make sure that more and more South Africans play a key role in the economy of their country. Even some land owners and companies are now saying, “We don’t need all this land.” We’re coming up with a multiplicity of solutions, and we’re going to confound everyone once again by resolving the land question, just like we did with the apartheid question.

JT: And you’re confident you can do this without damaging the agricultural sector? Because one of the risks of putting land in the hands of poor farmers is that while they may deserve it, they don’t know much about large-scale industrial farming.

CR: That’s where the government is going to step in to support them. But we’re also going to call upon those who are landowners now to partner with those who currently don’t own land. We will not go the way Zimbabwe went because we’re going to be smart.

JT: Throughout the West, we currently see a disturbing rise in white nationalism. South Africa is the country that definitively defeated that ideology. What lessons can South Africa teach the rest of the world about this today?

CR: The one lesson is that we are strengthened by diversity and by embracing one another in tolerance. We were able to do that and solve what was regarded as the most intractable problem in the world. The key lay in inclusion, tolerance, and the acceptance of diversity. If one accepts those things, intolerance, race, and prejudice begin to dissolve. But we were also lucky to have a leader [Nelson Mandela] who could take us across the fault lines.

Jonathan Tepperman is the editor in chief of Foreign Policy.

  Twitter: @j_tepperman

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