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Brighter days ahead for the Rainbow Nation?

Supporters of Cyril Ramaphosa in Johannesburg last month. Picture: WIKUS DE WET/AFP/Getty Images - Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Almost three decades on from the end of apartheid, will South Africa finally get the transformative leader it so desperately needs? Paul Knott reports.

Memories of the inspiring way in which apartheid was overcome make it hard not to see South Africa as a ray of sunshine in a stormy world. But even the rosiest-tinted spectacles cannot obscure its troubles under President Jacob Zuma. His likely successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, will have a lot of damage to repair before the ‘Rainbow Nation’ can recover its shine.

In many respects, post-apartheid South Africa remains a success story. The country has excellent infrastructure and one of the strongest economies in Africa. It is democratic, has a vibrantly free media and the independent rule of law largely prevails. Political violence is remarkably rare, given the vicious precedent set by the previous white-supremacist regime. But some of these assets have been severely dented during Zuma’s period in power. The economy is shrinking in per capita terms. Over two decades on from the end of apartheid, inequality and unemployment are still horrendous. Government mismanagement and skyrocketing corruption are partly to blame for these failings.

President Zuma himself faces a staggering 783 charges of corruption, fraud and other offences, which he is pulling every lever available to him to avoid. Critics in South Africans talk about ‘state capture’ to describe how they believe Zuma and his cronies, most notoriously his family’s business associates, the Guptas, have allegedly hijacked the state to enrich themselves.

Zuma’s activities have reduced support for the African National Congress (ANC), which led the fight against apartheid and has governed ever since it was ended. But the ANC remains South Africa’s largest political party by far. Its election of a new leader, Ramaphosa, just before Christmas has given many people hope that the current problems can be rectified.

Ramaphosa was a prominent anti-apartheid campaigner throughout the 1980s. He was the leader of the South African National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), then became a founder and the first General Secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). Under his leadership, COSATU played a central role in mobilising anti-apartheid protests.

Ramaphosa went on to head the ANC’s negotiating team with the white minority government. His skilful handling of the talks was crucial to achieving a peaceful end to apartheid and replacing it with democracy. Later, Ramaphosa was Nelson Mandela’s preferred choice of successor as president. But he was outmanoeuvred by, first, Thabo Mbeki and then Zuma.

The ANC’s breadth of support means every previous party leader it has elected has subsequently gone on to be president of the country. Zuma’s term in office ends in 2019. But, as happened to Mbeki, his loss of the ANC leadership may well lead to an earlier departure. Ongoing machinations within the ANC party hierarchy could even prompt a handover to Ramaphosa in the coming weeks.

In theory, Ramaphosa’s background in both grassroots and high-level politics should make him well-attuned as president to the issues that matter most to ordinary South Africans. But Ramaphosa’s life has changed dramatically since the anti-apartheid struggle. There are concerns he has become too detached from the man and woman in the street. Over the last couple of decades, Ramaphosa has used his considerable skills and enviable contacts book to become one of South Africa’s wealthiest businessmen.

His switch to the other side of the fence was starkly highlighted when 34 striking miners were shot dead in Marikana, in the north of the country, in 2012. Rather than leading the miners as once might have been the case, Ramaphosa was by then a non-executive director of the mine-owning company, Lonmin. Whilst he strongly denies any involvement in the decisions of the company and police during this horrific event, the symbolism of his new position was jarring.

The image-conscious Ramaphosa’s touch also appeared to desert him at times during the ANC leadership campaign. He made great play of his love for breeding cattle, perhaps to demonstrate his continued connection with his Venda ethnic roots. If so, then choosing to focus his interest on expensive Ugandan Ankole longhorns, one of which recently sold at auction for more than $1million, was unwise. The glossy coffee-table book he published depicting his exclusive herd showed little affinity with the masses struggling to put food on their tables.

Ramaphosa is generally considered to be honest and there are no direct allegations of corruption against him. Whilst disillusionment with Zuma did some of Ramaphosa’s work of building his appeal for him, the widespread support he enjoys is genuine. Few other leaders could unite big business figures, the trade unions and South Africa’s still influential Communist Party behind them simultaneously, as he has done.

If and when Ramaphosa does accede to the presidency, the first challenge to enacting his programme of cleaning up South Africa and revitalising its economy could come from within the ANC.

Ramaphosa won the ANC leadership election by a wafer-thin margin. And the other polls on the ballot paper burdened him with a National Executive team packed with Zuma’s cronies. The next highest ranked officials elected were David Mabuza as Deputy Leader and Ace Magashule as Secretary General. Both are also regional governors and have been the subject of unsavoury allegations. Mabuza has been accused of using a ‘private army’ to intimidate local ANC members in Mpumalanga, something officials in the province have denied. Magashule, meanwhile, has been dragged into the wider scandal involving the Gupta family, with allegations, arising from leaked emails, that one of his sons was used as an intermediary to provide access to the politician. Magashule has consistently denied any involvement in corruption.

The pair are seen as Zuma loyalists, or ‘continuity’ candidates, with little interest in any clean-up or investigations into the current government’s misconduct. Ramaphosa’s clean hands, political talents and managerial experience should still enable him to overcome these internal party handicaps.

The even bigger test is whether his orthodox market-economic policies will be sufficient to resolve South Africa’s deepest-rooted problems. As South African writer Sisonke Msimang outlines in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, the extraordinary tolerance shown by black South Africans for the apartheid legacy of grotesque inequality is wearing thin. Their frustrations are exacerbated by the arrogant sense of entitlement exhibited by some whites about the privileges they were allowed to retain in the interests of national reconciliation.

The disparities in access to wealth, decent housing and educational opportunities are immense. Unemployment is at 31% amongst black South Africans and less than 7% for whites. Bitterness amongst poor blacks about the failure to close these yawning gaps is growing.

Tinkering by Ramaphosa to improve the high-level business environment may stop South Africa’s economic slide. But more will need to be done to tackle the deeper difficulties. Without more radical measures to increase fairness, equalise opportunity and broaden prosperity, public anger may escalate. This could lead to greater support for parties such as the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), led by the populist firebrand Julius Malema, and perhaps outright violence.

Ramaphosa was an outstanding success as one of the political leaders who conquered apartheid and in his subsequent business career. After two decades of waiting, his ambition of becoming president of South Africa finally seems set to be fulfilled. He will surely do a better job than Zuma. But it remains to be seen how badly his years amongst the financial elite have dulled his political instincts. To become the transformative president the Rainbow Nation really needs to revive it, he needs to aim higher than basic competence and summon up some of his old radicalism.

Paul Knott is a former British diplomat and the author of The Accidental Diplomat; he lives in Switzerland

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