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ANC chooses prgamatism

Staecker Claus Kommentarbild App
Claus Stäcker
December 19, 2017

South Africa's ruling ANC party has chosen Cyril Ramaphosa to replace Jacob Zuma as its party president. The choice of the former Nelson Mandela confidant is a lesser evil, says DW's Claus Stäcker.

Cyril Ramaphosa is congratulated by ANC delegates
Image: Reuters/S. Sibeko

It came down to a choice between Cyril Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma for the new leader of the African National Congress (ANC), the party that has ruled South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994. 

Ramaphosa won after a marathon voting session. Of the two, he is the lesser evil. 

Ramaphosa's victory thwarts the plans of the Zuma faction to retain access to power through Zuma's ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Admittedly, it's unfair to reduce Dlamini-Zuma – a medical doctor, seasoned minister and former African Union chairperson – to a failed marriage with South Africa's tarnished president. But even if she had proved capable of countering Jacob Zuma's direct influence, suspicions of being his puppet would have lingered. Dlamini-Zuma and Zuma also share the same circle of supporters and the same dogmatic approach to politics, which would have hindered the new beginning that South Africa so desperately needs. 

The return of Mandela's chosen one

Currently South Africa's vice president, Ramaphosa is seen as politically balanced, economically literate and willing to adhere to the norms of good governance. The stock market reacted positively and the South African Rand jumped four percentage points within just a few minutes. Farmers – concerned about Zuma's proposals for further land reforms – have stopped holding their breaths and white and Indian minorities are reassured by Ramaphosa's reputation as a moderate.

While liberals and economists value Ramaphosa's management skills and pragmatism, radicals and South Africans have a poor view of Ramaphosa – one of the country's ten richest blacks – as a cold-hearted businessman. Many still remember about Ramaphosa's controversial role in the Marikana massacre of striking workers at the Lonmin mine. 

Photo of Claus Stäcker wearing a suit and tie
Claus Stäcker is DW's Head of Programs for Africa

In 2012, Ramaphosa, then an executive at a Lonmin partner, wrote an email to Lonmin executives criticizing striking workers as "dastardly criminals" and suggesting there should be "concomitant action". The next day, police opened fire on the mine workers, killing 34 and severely injuring dozens of others. Although an inquiry cleared Ramaphosa of misconduct, he's still viewed with suspicion by the working class. 

He lost more standing for failing in his three years as South Africa's vice president to stop, or even curb, the corruption of the Zuma presidency. Suffering under state capture (the takeover of South Africa's resources by Zuma cronies), South Africans missed his strong open dissent, a clearer commitment to transparency and a visible challenge to Zuma. But despite styling himself as a reformer, as vice president, Ramaphosa often appeared to lack direction, ideas and clout. He is the good conscience of a bad cabinet who often oscillated between rebellion and toeing the party line; unfortunately, the party usually won.

Clearing up years of ANC muck

Ramaphosa faces the daunting battle of cleaning up an ANC tainted by bribery and corruption before elections scheduled for 2019. Yet from the very start, this undertaking is being made more difficult by dubious promises and incompetent fellow combatants. 

In his farewell speech as ANC president, Zuma announced the party will abolish higher education fees for needy students. Aside from the question of how the highly indebted and looted government will finance this promise, it also leaves Ramaphosa entering the election campaign with a policy that flies in the face of everything he stands for – a balanced budget and cautious government spending.

Delegates gave Zuma's three hour speech, which was completely free of any self criticism or self reflection, a standing ovation. This reveals much about the balance of power in the ANC. 

Ramaphosa must also contend with having a 'mini-Zuma' at his side after the ANC elected Elias "Ace" Magashule, a dogged Zuma supporter with an abysmal track record as a state premier, as its secretary general. 

Ramaphosa may be the lesser evil for ANC president and he will certainly slow the party's decline. However, he will hardly compensate for the enormous loss of confidence that the ANC has suffered during the decade of Zuma's presidency.

That’s not necessarily bad news for South Africa’s democracy. The ANC might have ruled for 23 years, but voters should now be mature enough by now to separate the state from the party. After all, in 2019 they have the choice between Ramaphosa, the ANC and many others. 

Staecker Claus Kommentarbild App
Claus Stäcker Head of the Africa services with a keen focus on politics, demography and generational conflict@ClausStaecker