His likely successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, will be the last of the liberation generation to rule this young countryby Gerry Lynch / February 12, 2018 / Leave a comment
Cyril Ramaphosa, leader since December of South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC), which has governed the country since its transition to genuine democracy in 1994, made his name as a superlative trade union lawyer and organiser in the 1980s. He not only forced workplace concessions from the country’s powerful mining magnates for the black majority of their employees, but later was instrumental in sealing the deal on political transition with the apartheid-era White political elite.
His approach to negotiations has always been patient: he has been willing to concede on many minor matters to secure big goals. This has been on display as he seeks to displace his predecessor as party leader, Jacob Zuma, from the presidency, well in advance of a general election to be held in mid-2019.
Zuma’s nine-year tenure as South Africa’s president now seems likely to end in a matter of days or even hours, perhaps as soon as today’s meeting of the ANC’s party executive.
There comes a point in a contested transfer of power when the centre of gravity moves from the incumbent to the incomer; that point seems to have been reached. Previous Zuma allies, who backed his preferred successor and ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, in the closely fought party leadership election have been declaring their support for Ramaphosa in recent days.
Zuma, dogged for many years by credible allegations of gross corruption, is fighting fiercely to obtain immunity from prosecution and security for his family as his price for going quickly.
If elected, Ramaphosa will be the fifth ANC President of South Africa, all of them intimately involved in the liberation struggle. He has waited a long time for the top job; he was most people’s favourite to succeed Nelson Mandela in the 1990s but lost out to the cerebral returned exile Thabo Mbeki in internal elections.
That old defeat displays perhaps the weakest side of the Ramaphosa package: for all his undoubted negotiating skills, he has not always been an effective campaigner with the party’s robustly vocal grassroots members.
His relatively narrow leadership win was accompanied by an almost even split in the race for top internal posts between his supporters and those of Zuma. Zuma was merely the most egregious and high profile of the ANC’s many corrupt politicians, and dispatching him will not of itself end the problem. If Ramaphosa needs to concede too much to keep powerful potential rivals onside, it will undermine his prime objective of tackling graft and cronyism.
Back in 1997, after believing his prospects of becoming president had passed, Ramaphosa spent 15 years outside politics in the business world. He flourished, and became one of Africa’s richest men, with Forbes estimating his net worth in 2015 at around US$450m. His credibility with the local and international business community will be crucial to kickstarting an economy which has stalled badly, with growth of well under 1 per cent in 2016 and 2017, with the chaotic end of Zuma’s presidency destroying investor confidence.
Ultimately, Ramaphosa’s biggest challenge will be to deliver sustained development in a country where economic growth has rarely matched population growth since the 1970s, and where, despite a growing black middle-class, overall racial disparities in income remain staggering.
For young black voters, memories of the ANC’s leadership of the struggle for freedom are no longer enough to secure political loyalty, and they have started deserting the ANC. Some have opted for the radical Economic Freedom Fighters, demanding large-scale transfers of white land and wealth to blacks. Others have cast votes for the liberal Democratic Alliance, which now supplies the mayors of four of the five largest cities, with its platform of seeking growth through economic deregulation to fund redistribution.
One thing that Ramaphosa, having just turned 65, does not represent is a generational change of leadership. Yet he is likely to be the last of the liberation generation to rule this young country; the “born free” generation is beginning to ascend the ladders of power in various spheres. It is notable that the leaders of both main opposition parties are in their late thirties, too young to have voted in the country’s first democratic elections in 1994.