After a bruising battle that engaged ordinary South Africans in a manner reminiscent of the heady combination of fear and hope that galvanized the country after Nelson Mandela was released from 27 years of incarceration in 1990, his ruling African National Congress party has chosen a new leader to try to lift the country’s veil of sleaze.
Cyril Ramaphosa, at present serving as a deputy to the controversial and widely-despised President Jacob Zuma, is now the shoo-in as the party’s candidate to become South Africa’s next president in 2019, should the ANC win that general election. Publicly embraced as the anti-corruption savior of a country deeply divided by the sleaze of Zuma’s two-term administration, Ramaphosa’s victory finally dashes Zuma’s hopes of installing his former wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, as his successor.
Had Zuma been able to pull off a dynastic succession, he would likely have lifted, for once and for all, the threat of 783 charges of fraud and corruption that he has been dodging for more than a decade. It would also have offered immunity and the prospect of continued plunder to the brazen band of “state capture” cronies he had assembled around him, who allegedly have stolen billions by hijacking the revenue streams of South Africa’s poorly-managed state entities.
Ramaphosa won by a narrow 179-vote margin out of the 4,776 delegates who eventually were allowed to vote after court rulings in three of South Africa’s nine provinces invalidated the questionable credentials of more than 100 delegates. Most of these were calculated by observers to be supporters of Dlamini-Zuma.
Despite the money market approval that greeted Ramaphosa’s victory – the South African rand hit a nine-month high – the country is likely to remain in political turmoil. Mandela’s “rainbow moment” has long since been subsumed into a bitter racial blame-game following the failure of the economy to spread its wealth more equitably.
Ramaphosa successfully faced off against a woman who had embraced her former husband’s slogan of “radical economic transformation,” a vaguely defined populist ideology that basically blames “white monopoly capital” as the cause of all of South Africa’s problems. But his victory is not unalloyed, with the top six positions of his national executive split evenly with the Dlamini-Zuma faction.
Ramaphosa’s party-elected deputy, David Mabuza, the premier of Mpumalanga province, is part of the Dlamini-Zuma camp and has been accused of masterminding the assassination of political opponents (a claim he has denied) as well as being tarnished by numerous corruption allegations. Ace Magashule, the premier of the Free State province, who now occupies the powerful position of ANC secretary-general, too has been accused for corruption and is also part of the Dlamini-Zuma axis.
At its core, the leadership tussle between Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma reflects the ANC’s origins as a liberation movement. All political organizations have a Darwinian instinct for survival at almost any cost. Revolutionary movements, perforce, make for strange bedfellows.
When this happens to be a combination of such disparate combinations as black nationalists and minority-race liberals, communists and the religiously devout, captains of industry and the poorest of society, the strain of retaining unity becomes acute. Endless compromise, after almost 24 years of government, leads to impasse.
Ending that compromise is risky, especially when, as is the case of the ANC, the party has seen its share of the vote dwindling from 70 percent in the national elections of 2009 to a fragile 54 percent of the vote in the 2016 provincial elections. Hence the division, within the ANC, between the Dlamini-Zuma populists and the Ramaphosa pragmatists. These are two fundamentally divergent visions of South Africa’s future, contained within a single political entity.
But this is not simply a matter of economic ideology. The issue that most occupies ordinary South African, according to the pollsters, is corruption involving the Gupta family – cronies and benefactors of Zuma – who are claimed to benefit illegally from billions in tenders, as well as decreeing the hiring and firing of cabinet ministers. (Both Zuma and the Guptas have denied the allegations.)
To claim the crown, there are three challenges that Ramaphosa, designated heir to the throne, has to perform – at least in terms of public perception.
First, he must decide whether Zuma will be allowed to serve out his term of office until the 2019 elections, or whether he will be recalled, as was the fate of Zuma’s predecessor, former president Thabo Mbeki. The compromise might be for Zuma to resign with dignity, with private assurances of a presidential pardon from prosecution.
Second, Ramaphosa has to be unequivocal in his support for an increasingly beleaguered judiciary by ending the Zuma administration’s appeals against judgments on issues of state capture, as well as increasingly strident attacks on judges. That means the urgent appointment of a credible judge to oversee the commission of inquiry into the theft of state assets that was ordered by the Constitutional Court.
Thirdly, he has to act decisively against corruption. That means, potentially, the surgical excision of many within the new ANC national executive.
That could be Ramaphosa’s biggest challenge. As one analyst on the eNCA television channel said after the election, the ANC of Mandela is now “completely flawed morally.” The ANC remains, however, the party that wrested democracy out of apartheid. That legacy might be enough to keep it in power for some years yet. Do not expect its powerful people to go gently into the good night of political oblivion.
William Saunderson-Meyer is a South African writer and author of the nationally-syndicated Jaundiced Eye column. @TheJaundicedEye
The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.