A Clean President Can’t Govern From Atop a Tainted Party
Voting for the ANC in the hope that its leader can clean house is a leap of faith. Those who looted South Africa’s government won’t give up so easily.
Many voters in South Africa and pundits across the globe are mistakenly overinvesting in Cyril Ramaphosa’s African National Congress (ANC) party ahead of this week’s national elections. Even the venerable Economist, which plastered its cover with a smiling, rainbow Ramaphosa and proclaimed him the leader best suited to “shun the populists and face down the mafia within his own party,” seems to have missed the point.
Ramaphosa does not merely face an uphill battle, as many of his supporters would concede. He faces a potentially insurmountable task in fighting to rebuild South Africa’s seriously damaged democratic institutions that were trampled during the ruinously corrupt years under the leadership of former President Jacob Zuma from 2009 to 2018, until Ramaphosa replaced him as party leader in late 2017 and as president early last year.
In fact, whoever wins on Wednesday faces the unenviable challenge of needing to rescue an economy on such a dangerously low growth path that South Africa’s familiar triple challenges of high unemployment, poverty, and inequality cannot be seriously dented if this low-growth trajectory continues.
The South African state, which is the trough from which looters within the halls of power have eaten gluttonously for at least the past decade, lacks the capacity to simply get back to the business of good governance the morning after the election results are announced.
During the Zuma years, the public protector at the time, Thuli Madonsela, found that the president himself had wrongly benefited from upgrades to his private home in Nkandla, in KwaZulu-Natal. Since then, through the leaks of emails connected to the powerful Gupta family’s influence-buying campaign, which reached the highest levels of the Zuma administration, a huge amount of data has come to light about the extent of corruption within the government, supplemented by the work of academics, researchers, investigative journalists, and civil society organizations.
The Guptas, who are Indian nationals, appear to have clearly benefited from a ruthless and calculated infiltration of state-owned enterprises such as the energy provider Eskom. Several government officials have been implicated in this web of bribery, which has come to be known locally as “state capture.” Even Ramaphosa has conceded that ANC officials played a role in enabling large-scale corruption. Unfortunately, it appears that the justice system and law enforcement apparatus themselves have been hollowed out, too, and as a result no major government figure has as yet been found guilty in a court of law.
The sad truth is that Ramaphosa has no magic wand, even if his affable demeanor and dulcet speeches instill confidence and hope in audiences at home and abroad. Nevertheless, a majority of South Africans are likely to vote for the ANC on Wednesday in the hope that Ramaphosa will right the wrongs of his predecessor.
Given, however, that the ANC itself—not just Zuma—bears the blame for bringing the country to the brink of economic collapse, it is worth analyzing the dominant argument in favor of putting that same party in charge of the government for another five years despite its undeniable role in hobbling the country’s growth.
This argument—call it the rose-tinted Ramaphosa defense—runs as follows: None of the major opposition parties has compelling ideas to fix South Africa’s problems, and none of them has an internationally respected and technically skilled leader who is capable of reversing the effects of the Zuma years. Ramaphosa is enormously respected as a former trade union boss, skilled negotiator, successful businessman, and senior ANC official. He is also endowed with such sorely needed leadership traits as patience, strategic and tactical instincts, commitment to constitutionalism, and a decades-old yearning and readiness to serve his country. Indeed, he was already a presidential prospect back in the 1990s and even had the backing of Nelson Mandela.
Proponents of this view who are not sycophantic ANC supporters rightly recognize that the party is deeply divided between various factions. One of these factions features the party’s secretary-general, Ace Magashule, a man who could face the prospect of prosecution for corruption if the criminal justice system were fixed. There is a titanic struggle between his faction and Ramaphosa’s. These warring factions are still battling for control over the party and the government despite Zuma’s exit from the political arena. Even so, supporters of Ramaphosa respond to their own concession about the moral rot at the heart of the ANC by claiming that division within the party is, in fact, an additional reason to vote for the ANC.
Their hope is that if voters enthusiastically back a Ramaphosa-led ANC, the president would accumulate an enormous amount of indisputable legitimacy, derived from a convincing election victory, and that he could leverage that mandate to crowd out the looters who remain within the party’s upper echelons. If, however, the ANC wins by a small margin or ends up governing in a coalition, then the looters would be emboldened to try to oust Ramaphosa from the party leadership position. This would be the worst-case scenario for both the ANC and for the country, because it would lead to further corruption, erode the rule of law, and likely worsen the slow pace of service delivery that has outraged voters across the country—and that led the ANC to lose control of several of the country’s largest cities in the 2016 municipal elections.
The Ramaphosa supporters with rose-tinted glasses conclude that voters should vote for the ANC not because the party deserves to be rewarded for the looting of the Zuma years but as the most pragmatic way forward given that the opposition parties have failed to prove they are ready to deliver on the developmental promises that the ANC has only managed to patchily deliver over the first 25 years of democracy.
They accept that this week’s election is a contest between available choices rather than ideal ones and see Ramaphosa as the best choice on offer. This argument is coherent and seductive, but it is deeply flawed.
The first flaw is the belief that the looters inside the party will be frightened by a comprehensive popular mandate for Ramaphosa’s leadership in the general election. They won’t be. Zuma and his friends do not want to go to jail, and they do not want to give up their loot. Magashule appears to be the common denominator in most dodgy state tenders awarded in the Free State province during his premiership. Courts are likely to find that their corrupt acts were criminal.
It is already clear that they demonstrated zero regard for the rule of law and a society premised on the principle of constitutional supremacy. These looters, many of whom remain active inside the ANC’s national and provincial party structures, are not committed to democracy—and the hope that their consciences will be pricked by a show of popular electoral support for Ramaphosa is fanciful. If the thieves cared for democracy and good governance, they wouldn’t have stolen from state coffers in the first place.
There is a further difficulty that is peculiar to the South African political system. South Africans do not vote directly for the president; they vote for parties, and seats in Parliament are allocated through a system of proportional representation. The president is then elected by Parliament. Many ANC leaders who were found ethically wanting during the Zuma years, such as former Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini, who was found to be “reckless” and “grossly negligent” by the Constitutional Court, are high on the ANC’s list of potential members of parliament and so may well be back in the chamber soon, despite Ramaphosa’s promise to “renew” the ANC. Political parties, in such a system, have enormous power in determining which party members get sent to Parliament and ultimately to the executive branch.
While the president has real executive power that is vested in the office of the presidency including the choice of cabinet ministers, the South African electoral and governance systems do not empower voters maximally. If a president is asked to step down by their party, that is the end of their role as both party leader and president of the country, as was the case for Zuma in 2018 as well as for Thabo Mbeki—the predecessor Zuma displaced as ANC leader in late 2007, before becoming president of the country in 2009.
The looters inside the ANC know this. This is why South Africa’s democratic health is so dependent on the internal dynamics of the ANC, as the investigative journalist Pieter-Louis Myburgh demonstrated in his riveting recent book, Gangster State. If you are a thief who can get yourself elected to a senior party position inside the ANC, you could easily rise from there to a senior role in government, allowing you to steal from taxpayers.
Myburgh’s book shows how Magashule, for example, used money and other resources to build patronage networks. He footed hotel and cell phone bills for impoverished party members, which allowed him to manipulate the branches of the ANC in his home province of the Free State and get delegates at elective conferences to vote for him. Whoever controls these internal structures of the ANC can ultimately end up with the keys to the government’s coffers.
And that is why even overwhelming popular support for Ramaphosa in the May 8 election will not dampen the determination of his foes to oppose him inside the party, because the party’s internal elective processes are not affected by the national elections. The looters can ignore the outcome of the elections and continue trying to manipulate and capture party structures. Supporters of Ramaphosa seem blind to these internal intricacies of the ANC.
Unless the electoral system is reformed in South Africa to allow for a mix of constituency-based voting and proportional representation, a big margin of victory for the ANC will not help a well-meaning president punish or sideline corrupt forces within the party. Ramaphosa’s individual leadership strengths are no match for the institutional realities and organizational weaknesses of an ANC that has become morally bankrupt after years of allowing unethical leaders to damage both the party and the government by turning a blind eye to wrongdoing.
South Africans have a tendency to yearn for political saviors. Given the country’s violent colonial and apartheid past, there is a collective psychological need to remain hopeful, in Mandela’s words, that the country will never again go back to the worst of the past. He was one such savior.
Mandela’s weaknesses were often smoothed over in the hope that he would lead the nascent democracy into a nirvana. That did not happen. Thabo Mbeki, his successor, was meant to be a technocratic economist whose aloofness could be tolerated if it brought the country economic justice. That did not happen. And now, fatigued by a lost decade due to Zuma’s corruption, the electorate is prepared to overlook the pitfalls of a system that gives party bosses dangerous amounts of power and pin their deepest hopes on a Ramaphosa-led renewal of the ANC.
He may be the best leader on offer, but he can’t govern effectively if half his cabinet is corrupt.