Cyril Ramaphosa could save South Africa—if he can reform his own party

Cyril Ramaphosa the new leader of the African National Congress (ANC)

The new ANC leader must face down many bigwigs loyal to his nemesis, President Jacob Zuma

HIS broad grin, and his rival’s grimace, heralded the big news. On December 18th Cyril Ramaphosa became the new leader of the African National Congress (ANC) and thus its candidate in the next South African presidential election. He will surely take over when President Jacob Zuma’s second term expires in 2019—or even sooner.

Mr Ramaphosa is a former trade union boss and anti-apartheid campaigner. He was once tipped to succeed Nelson Mandela, but the party picked Thabo Mbeki instead and Mr Ramaphosa spent the next several years making money. This time he campaigned more effectively, defeating Mr Zuma’s preferred successor (and ex-wife), Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

The result was uncomfortably close. Mr Ramaphosa won by fewer than 200 votes out of nearly 5,000 cast at the ruling ANC’s five-yearly elective conference. Had the courts not kicked out more than 400 delegates, many of whom supported Ms Dlamini-Zuma, after finding irregularities in their selection, the Zuma dynasty might have kept its lock on power.

Mr Ramaphosa hopes to bring South Africa back from the brink of economic crisis. During the campaign he promised a “moral renewal” of the country and the ruling party. Although he carefully avoided naming names, it was clear that he was talking about the “state capture” that has flourished on Mr Zuma’s watch. Well-connected thieves have misappropriated the equivalent of as much as 5% of GDP, by one estimate. Few areas of government are untarnished. Mr Ramaphosa vowed to stop the pillage.

Ms Dlamini-Zuma, by contrast, barely mentioned it. Instead, she proposed to turn South Africa sharply to the left and damn the consequences. She vowed to nationalise industries, mines and land, end the independence of the central bank and create jobs by making the state and state-owned firms employ more people.

Trouble at the top

In response to Mr Ramaphosa’s victory the local currency, the rand, surged by almost 5% and the prices of South African government bonds rose. Some of this optimism may be premature. Mr Ramaphosa inadvertently gave a hint of how difficult his task ahead may be when his smile faded as the results of the vote for other leadership positions trickled in.

Of the ANC’s new “top six” leaders, three are close allies of Mr Zuma. They include David Mabuza, a provincial party boss and premier (governor) of Mpumalanga, who was elected deputy president of the party. Mr Mabuza, who calls himself “the cat”, for his many political lives, is a longtime supporter of the president. According to ANC tradition, as deputy president of the party he is first in line to succeed Mr Ramaphosa as president of the party in 2022 or 2027. Joining him in the leadership is Ace Magashule, the premier of the Free State, who was chosen as the party’s new secretary-general. Like Mr Mabuza he is a member of the “premier league”, the informal name for a group of provincial leaders who are loyal to Mr Zuma and supported his ex-wife.

The presence of Zuma loyalists at the top of the party may constrain Mr Ramaphosa. He has been handed “a poisoned chalice”, says Richard Calland, a governance expert at the University of Cape Town. “The [Zuma] candidate has lost, but the faction has won.”

Much will depend on how many allies Mr Zuma can muster on the party’s 80-member national executive committee. Voting for this had not yet begun when The Economist went to press. Some analysts worry that this committee has the power to demand that the party’s president step down—as happened with the “recall” of President Thabo Mbeki in 2008. The previous national executive committee was stacked with Zuma supporters who kept him in power despite his unpopularity among rank-and-file members (never mind voters in general).

Such worries are probably overblown. With Mr Zuma entering the twilight of his presidency, power is likely to flow away from him and towards Mr Ramaphosa. The transition could be stormy. John Ashbourne of Capital Economics, a consultancy, warns of a power struggle between Mr Ramaphosa and Mr Zuma over the coming months, until the next national election.

With Mr Ramaphosa at the helm, the ANC is more likely to win the vote in 2019 than it would have been under Ms Dlamini-Zuma. Nonetheless, the party’s popularity has been sliding, thanks to the incompetence and corruption that South Africans see in their government. Despite its aura as the party of liberation from white rule, the ANC can no longer be confident of winning an outright majority.

In a final, defiant speech as ANC leader, Mr Zuma admitted that the party was at a crossroads. Naturally, he blamed his critics. Corruption in the private sector is just as bad as that in government, he declared, without evidence. The media are a force hostile to the ANC and the country, he thundered. Mr Zuma also berated the courts, civil society, party veterans and the ANC’s alliance partners, the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions.

Mr Ramaphosa has a reputation for charm, integrity and pragmatism. If he can reshape the ANC as a party that fixes schools and purges looters, he can perhaps restore its fortunes, and South Africa’s.

SOURCE: economist

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