Foreign Policy Blogs

On Zuma, Ramaphosa, and the State of South African Politics

It has been an eventful few weeks in South African politics, as eventful as any since the period from the CODESA negotiations that ended apartheid through the early, heady days of Nelson Mandela’s epochal presidency. The era of Jacob Zuma has finally come to an end, the era of Cyril Ramaphosa, long awaited in some circles for many years, has begun.

Over the years Zuma managed to develop a Teflon surface, allowing myriad corruption charges and even allegations of rape that most presumed to be more true than not to slide off of him, allowing him to maintain not only power, but a strong base of support within an increasingly sclerotic African National Congress. But in the past year or two a confluence of circumstances – ever more corruption, “state capture” whereby private (and often foreign) interests had managed to insert themselves into the mechanisms of the state, shifting public resources to private pockets by the billions of rands. Eventually, and tentatively, a shift occurred within the ANC where just enough Zuma loyalists either backed off or changes sides, neutrals who found their self-interest moving from supporting the President to supporting other options, and supporters of other candidates – most notably but not solely Ramaphosa – found their voices.

These all culminated in the ANC’s party conference in December when, after a strenuously fought conflict of words, high-level political machinations, and even occasional bursts of courage Cyril Ramaphosa won the election for the ANC presidency, which historically has carried with it the easy path to head of state. Ramaphosa’s main challenger was Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Jacob Zuma’s ex-wife and his chosen vessel to either continue his legacy or ensure that he avoids prosecution, and the electioneering was fraught. In fact, even as Ramaphosa won the party presidency (and thus the presumptive presidency of the country) the other top positions in the ANC were split evenly along factional lines, auguring potentially ill for Ramaphosa’s leadership.

But an even bigger question remained: what to do with Zuma? The next presidential elections were not to occur until 2019, a whoppingly long lame-duck period for a president who, even when ostensibly accountable to the electorate in the past had managed to do nearly incalculable harm not only to the reputation of the country, but to the reputation of the ANC, a party that for the first time in post-apartheid history looked in jeopardy on losing real standing in national elections next year, even if the party was not yet in any kind of serious jeopardy of losing power nationally.

And so the last few weeks have seen the ANC’s power brokers in delicate negotiations with Zuma, a legitimate resistance-era hero, to get him to step down. For his own interests. For the party’s interests. For the country’s interests. One can assume that carrots were tied to sticks, that flattery and obsequiousness coated thinly veiled warnings, if not threats, that promises were made, some explicit, most implicit, and some acknowledged with winks and nods. Whatever happened in those corridors of power, Zuma stepped down this week, Ramaphosa rose to power, is saying all of the right things, and much of South Africa experienced emotions ranging from joy to relief.

Psychologically South Africans have gotten over a massive, invasive hump. But in and of itself the departure of Zuma, deleterious as his effect on South Africa has been, will prove no panacea. Nor will the emergence of Cyril Ramaphosa as President prove to be a magic elixir. There is much work to be done. But if Zuma’s departure is not a sufficient condition for a new brand of political transformation in South Africa it is a necessary one. Now the question is whether or not Ramaphosa has been granted a mandate to clean house in a way that desperately needs to be cleaned, getting at the dust gathered in the corners, clearing away that cobwebs that have accumulated near the ceilings, and pulling out so much rubbish that has been swept under rugs and beneath the furniture.



Derek Catsam

Derek Catsam is a Professor of history and Kathlyn Cosper Dunagan Professor in the Humanities at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. He is also Senior Research Associate at Rhodes University. Derek writes about race and politics in the United States and Africa, sports, and terrorism. He is currently working on books on bus boycotts in the United States and South Africa in the 1940s and 1950s and on the 1981 South African Springbok rugby team's tour to the US. He is the author of three books, dozens of scholarly articles and reviews, and has published widely on current affairs in African, American, and European publications. He has lived, worked, and travelled extensively throughout southern Africa. He writes about politics, sports, travel, pop culture, and just about anything else that comes to mind.

Areas of Focus:
Africa; Zimbabwe; South Africa; Apartheid