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Tuesday, May 24, 2022

On South Africa’s new leader: a welcome change, but a long road to travel

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The goodwill surrounding Cyril Ramaphosa’s swearing-in as the new president of South Africa today was in direct proportion to the relief that his predecessor had finally departed. In his nine years at the top, Jacob Zuma showed himself to be utterly unfit for the job in every way: facing multiple corruption charges, encouraging the spread of clientilist politics and assaulting South African institutions. On his watch, the economy suffered, inequality and unemployment soared (to almost 27%) and violent crime rose. His country’s international standing has tumbled. Nothing about his presidency became him as the leaving of it, even if he had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the exit.

There is widespread hope that Mr Ramaphosa will turn things around. He too is an anti-apartheid veteran, boasting both prominent trade union service and a very lucrative business career reassuring to the foreign investors that South Africa must woo. He is seen at home and abroad as an able leader serious about tackling the problems; his first speech promised to fight what has become known as “state capture”. But to believe that one man can fix the woes that his predecessor introduced, exacerbated or ignored is to make a fundamental error. One analyst compares Mr Zuma’s departure to deadheading a rose bush. It may be necessary, and the bush may look a lot better as another bud comes into bloom – but unless the roots are watered and the blight is tackled, the bush will die.

In the end, Mr Zuma’s removal was effected by his party, in an act of self-preservation. While many inside it opposed him from the start or have spent years seeking his departure, as an institution the ANC at best endured him for far too long and at worst colluded with him. Corruption has become deeply embedded both within the party and within the state, at every level; many people have benefited from his patronage. Tackling this will be a long struggle and will challenge many people’s interests – and Mr Ramaphosa has an election to fight next year, as well as immense problems to face in the economy and society. How much will he be able to do?

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Others wonder whom exactly he will help. Despite his trade union service, he is very much a market-minded reformer – “Mr Davos” – and has faced criticism over the Marikana massacre, in which police shot dead 34 striking miners. Mr Ramaphosa was a director of the strikers’ employer. But technocratic ability is as important as ideology. Mr Zuma was adept at populist rhetoric, but he failed those at the bottom of society. Social welfare provision, a vital source of poverty alleviation, almost collapsed under him and desperately needs an overhaul.

Despite his efforts to infiltrate, intimidate or undermine any potential sources of challenge, Mr Zuma was weakened by good investigative journalism, the courage of the former public protector and parts of the judiciary, and the effective use of parliament by the opposition. Underlying all these is a progressive constitution. His demise hints at the greater impact those could have in a system where a single party is no longer so dominant (though his disappearance has diminished the prospect of a split in the party – thought to be its most likely source of defeat in the nearer term – and will boost the ANC’s popularity).

The very act of Mr Zuma’s removal reminds the public that it has the power to choose its leaders and hold them accountable. That in itself bolsters democracy. It should also sharpen the minds of the ANC about the task ahead.

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