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South Africa's lost decade

Staecker Claus Kommentarbild App
Claus Stäcker
February 15, 2018

For many South Africans, Jacob Zuma's resignation was like a belated Valentine's Day present. But his successor Cyril Ramaphosa faces enormous challenges, says DW's Claus Stäcker.

A smiling Jacob Zuma flanked by three of his four wives
Jacob Zuma with three of his four wivesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Hutchings

Actually, everything has been said and written about Jacob Zuma. He was a mistake. He leaves behind a country in tatters, with corrupt and inefficient public enterprises, an economy that has been downgraded to junk status and public debt at a record high. Incompetent leaders can be found at all levels.

South Africa had entered a promising new era with Nelson Mandela at the helm in 1994, but Zuma represents a lost decade in the country's history. For a brief moment, he appeared like a down to earth alternative to his predecessor Thabo Mbeki, who was regarded as aloof and obstinate. Zuma, on the other hand, appeared like a politician who was close to the masses and who represented the poor and marginalized with his humble background and his lack of education. A man who, with his traditional dances, costumes, struggle songs and shameless polygamy, had a strong appeal for those left behind.

The power of Zuma's populism

Zuma's party, the progressive African National Congress (ANC), which had long enjoyed international support, fell under his spell and could not stop his populist attraction. The party underestimated his shrewdness and deviousness and was completely usurped within just a few years by someone who did not stand for anything - except an unscrupulous talent to stay in power and enrich himself, his family and his cronies.

Zuma made good use of the weapons he had amassed during the struggle against the apartheid regime. As the ANC's head of intelligence during that time, Zuma had meticulously collected facts about friends and foes alike. When he brought South Africa's official intelligence organizations and investigative authorities under his control after becoming president, Zuma had plenty of information at his disposal that he could use against almost everyone and play his opponents off against each other. He did not manage to take control of the media and the judiciary, but the public service is full of Zuma's men.

Ramaphosa's mammoth task

Claus Stäcker
DW's Claus Stäcker was a correspondent in South Africa for many years and now heads DW's Africa programs

All this illustrates the mammoth task that awaits Zuma's successor, Cyril Ramaphosa. South Africa, once Africa's beacon of hope and its economic engine, is hardly taken seriously on the continent anymore. It's a special case with its never-ending history of apartheid and eternal black-white portrayal. It lacks a coherent foreign policy and has become unpredictable. Investors have long started to give preference to other regions. South Africa's large corporations have started to operate around the globe and put their money elsewhere.
Cyril Ramaphosa is suspiciously quiet these days. So far, there has been no vigorous TV speech from him, no public display of triumph or words of scorn.

Ramaphosa probably knows exactly what lies ahead and how big the damage really is that Zuma has left behind. The opposition is right to demand early elections, which probably would not suit Ramaphosa. He wants to have time to make his mark in order to improve his position ahead of the scheduled elections in 2019. Ramaphosa wants to prevent a split within the ANC; instead he wants to reform the party and lead it to another election victory.

Compromise and concessions

For that, Ramaphosa will have to make compromises as well as concessions to Zuma's supporters, which are not likely to go down well with many voters. Ramaphosa's fans expect him to clean up the country and to restore the public's confidence in the judiciary, the constitution and state bureaucracy. They want Zuma and his cohorts to stand trial. They want public servants to serve the country's interests, not their own.

This will be a tough test for Ramaphosa, despite his excellent qualities. The industrialist and multimillionaire does not represent the common people, but South Africa's victorious elite. Aged 65, he belongs to the old generation of liberation heroes who are becoming less and less popular with the country's youth. The sensational rise of the leftwing populist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party, led by the former head of the ANC youth wing, Julius Malema, is a clear indication that the ANC has lost the young generation almost completely.

Africa's generation conflict   

This is a generation conflict which links South Africa to the rest of the continent. Trust in the old guard is dwindling with every failure and every broken promise. Ramaphosa's new cabinet will definitely be more capable than Zuma's incompetent governments. But it will be mercilessly judged by its achievements: an economic upswing rather than nepotism, jobs rather than empty promises, perspectives for the poor rather than slogans. If elections take place as planned, Ramaphosa's government will get its first report card in 2019.