The Renewal of South African Democracy

Photo: South African President Cyril Ramophosa (L) shakes former President Jacob Zuma’s (R) hand at a farewell reception for President Zuma. Photo credit: South African Government

By Kwadwo A. Boateng

Jacob Zuma’s presidency has ended, leaving behind a devastated economy. South Africans are eager to have a transparent government, and anti-corruption reform. The country now has a new president – Cyril Ramaphosa, who took office as interim president just six hours after a National Assembly vote saw Zuma resign under 783 counts of corruption. The country’s new leadership must adopt an effective policy of anti-corruption. Furthermore, it must pursue state-led reform, which starts with restraining executive control and empowering civil society, including black South Africans who face high levels of wealth inequality.

Zuma’s resignation came surprisingly early, just a day after St. Valentine’s Day – a gift to his critics – despite his best efforts to retain power in a court battle which lasted weeks. Former allies of his in the African National Congress (ANC) confronted him about his track record as one of South Africa’s most controversial leaders since the end of white minority rule in 1994. Earlier that week, Zuma was under pressure from leading members of the ANC to resign, and thereafter police raided the family residence of Zuma’s business partners, the Guptas, who have been implicated in the alleged plundering of state resources called state capture during Zuma’s term in office.   

Zuma remained defiant until the end, announcing proudly that there was “nothing I’ve done wrong,” and warning the public that his supporters would take to the streets. Despite his protests, he could not avoid the no-confidence vote arranged by South African lawmakers the next day. Although his resignation came as a surprise to many, it was inevitable given the public discontentment; especially because of his attempts to install his ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, as the ANC’s president and as his heir. Some international critics, such as the Council on Foreign Relations, for example, believe that he had tried to do this thinking that she could protect him and his cronies from prosecution.

Some analysts suspect that Zuma’s desire to stay in office despite corruption charges is related to his neglect of the socioeconomic tensions in the country. Another possible reason for his actions is that on leaving office that he may face substantial legal bills from his unending court battles against corruption charges since taking office in 2009, following rape allegations. Due to these and other events during his presidency, the ANC today is more associated with corruption than with the national liberation that it led during the Mandela era. The party has also become regarded internationally as a kleptocratic institution, due to cronyism amongst some of Zuma’s colleagues, who have helped him present his legal woes as smear campaigns designed by his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki.

The main charge against Zuma, and a term that South Africans became all too familiar with over the course of 2017, is ‘state capture’. The term came into use after the publication of a report entitled “State of Capture” by the former public protector, Thuli Madonsela. It investigates allegations that the Gupta family had unconstitutional influence over South African politics, from which they and Zuma profited. The report ultimately asks for a judicial enquiry into the allegations that Zuma gave the three Gupta brothers access to government-owned institutions and businesses as well as to state funds. Approximately 150 to 200bn rand ($11-$15bn) in government funds has been stolen.

Despite Zuma’s presidential malpractice, and his part in his ex-wife’s campaign, Ramaphosa, a former anti-apartheid activist and labor union boss, who became a business tycoon, triumphed as the ANC’s president elect on December 18, 2017 and was subsequently nominated as the ANC’s presidential candidate for the 2019 election. He will most probably win. His main objectives throughout his campaign were fighting corruption and revitalising South Africa’s beleaguered economy. Most importantly, Ramaphosa promised the country a “moral renewal,” by combating the corruption, unemployment, violent crime, and political brinkmanship that had become uncontrollable during Zuma’s presidency. The international community find it promising that he has remained untainted by the corruption that tempted Zuma and his clique.

Although Ramaphosa’s presidency represents a hopeful new era for African democracy, many South Africans do not share that hope. Post-apartheid conditions for most black South Africans make their society one of the world’s most unequal. The top 10 percent of earners take home 60 percent of all South Africa’s income. Additionally, the top 1 percent own 67 percent of all domestic wealth, while the top 10 percent own 93 percent of it, giving a wealth Gini coefficient of 0.95. This radical inequality still mostly reflects the racially oriented wealth provision privileged under apartheid, with a few benefiting at the expense of the many. Tackling South Africa’s chronic socioeconomic issues is one of the major challenges for the new leadership.

Zuma’s critics include disillusioned former colleagues, the international community, and trade unionists who have historically supported the ANC because of its roots in Pan-Africanism and its promotion of workers’ rights. They have all been let down by his government, and their hope for Ramaphosa, who was once a trade union leader, is that he will pursue an anti-poverty agenda. Ramaphosa’s reputation for professional integrity can be used to repair relations between voters and the government. After Zuma’s resignation, Baleka Mbete, the parliamentary Speaker, stated that South Africa’s “democracy has matured and remains resilient.” This is reassuring for the prospects of state-led reform against corruption and in part a consequence of South Africa’s robust legislature and its fearless judiciary.

Indeed, the Zuma years and Zuma’s downfall, despite their destructiveness, may be indicative of better things to come for South Africa. They have reinforced the determination of ordinary South Africans to eradicate corruption at all levels of government. They have also inspired a political vision championed by civil society groups to dismantle patronage networks throughout the ANC. South African citizens’ political consciousness has expanded: many now seek to amplify the voice of civil society in its demand for transparent institutions. Much is now expected of Ramaphosa and very properly so. To fulfill Mandela’s vision for the South African people, the challenges of democratic governance must be met with creativity and political imagination.  

Kwadwo A. Boateng is a Ghanaian graduate student at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University who grew up in Johannesburg. He holds an Honors Degree in History, from Trinity College Dublin, and has worked with a number of organizations including the International Crisis Group, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, UBS Wealth Management’s UK impact investing team, and Rolling Stone Magazine. “Youth is never a handicap, but a new vantage point from which we can hope to inspire the good in others.”