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South Africa at the crossroads


The swearing in of Cyril Ramaphosa as President of South Africa on February 15 marks a significant development in the politics of the country. His assumption of office brought a great deal of satisfaction and hope. This followed nine years of maladministration by Jacob Zuma, who was forced to resign by his party, the African National Congress. Perceived lack of integrity and allegations of corruption and racketeering were levelled at him, with several charges pending. He was acquitted, following a rape charge in 2005. His use of state funds to extensively renovate his rural home drew widespread condemnation. His friendship with the Indian born Gupta family that controlled a large business empire, drew the anger of many who resented their undue influence on him.  At its National Conference in December 2017, the party elected Ramaphosa as its president, having defeated by a narrow margin, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, ex-wife of Jacob Zuma. The ANC had become deeply divided and pressured Zuma to resign before national elections in 2019.  He resisted until the threat of a vote of no confidence eventually settled the matter.

Who is Cyril Ramaphosa? He was a major figure in the anti-apartheid struggle and a key negotiator in South Africa’s transition to democracy. He was one of the foundation members of the National Union of Mineworkers and became first secretary of the Council of Unions of South Africa (COSATU), which he also served as legal adviser. He was a close comrade of Nelson Mandela (Madiba) and was, it seemed, his favourite to succeed him. That position was, however, taken by Thabo Mbeki, son of Govan Mbeki, who was imprisoned on Robben Island with Mandela. He then followed Mandela’s call to blacks to get into business and the professions.  He became deeply involved and is regarded as one of the wealthiest blacks in South Africa. He served on different occasions on the National Executive Committee of the ANC and became deputy president in 2012.  With the support of the major unions and from some of the provinces, he was elected president of the ANC in December 2017.

South Africa needed someone at the helm who could address the problems of corruption, lack of accountability, poverty, inequality, and debt. In his State of the Nation address, he touched the right notes. He saw that period as the dawn of a new day; recalling Mandela’s long walk to freedom, he stated that in this year, his centenary year, “we will … reinforce our commitment to ethical behaviour and ethical leadership,” and promised to honour him by “… putting behind us the era of discord, disunity and disillusionment”. The creation of jobs, especially for youths, was stated as a fundamental part of his national agenda.

Many serious challenges exist. We saw that in the appointment of his cabinet, considered to be an interim one. He removed some of the more questionable appointments of Zuma and brought back some of those whom he had expelled.  He needed, however, to strike a delicate balance, given the continued existence of some support for Zuma and the need to consider ethnic issues. The powerful voices of the unions and women had also to be accommodated. Serious challenges stare at him: corruption, poverty, inequality, debt, and unemployment, and land redistribution, among others. Fittingly, he ended his address by quoting from one of Hugh Masekela’s songs that spoke of renewal and a new beginning. He was able to overcome a few blemishes in his business career, one around the action taken against mine workers in the Marika miners’ strike of 2012, but a Commission of Inquiry absolved him of any responsibility, even though he publicly regretted any degree of involvement. The task is huge, but if anyone can do it, he can.    

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.