Cyril Ramaphosa, anti-apartheid activist, businessman and senior politician, has been elected head of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) in a closely contested ballot. Ramaphosa takes over a party that has been battered by scandal, torn by division and is increasingly unpopular, but if anyone is capable of putting the ANC house in order, it is he. Unfortunately, the ANC leadership remains divided, and he may not have the support he needs to implement the changes that are necessary.
The ANC has ruled South Africa since the end of the apartheid era. The euphoria that greeted that historical transition has worn off, and the ANC has proven that it is not immune to the temptations of power. The tenure of President Jacob Zuma has been especially turbulent, with scandals breaking out with disheartening regularity. The president has been charged with nearly 20 counts of criminal activity, casting a pall over his administration. Last week’s ANC leadership vote selected the person who will succeed Zuma as South Africa’s president if the ANC prevails — as expected — in a presidential ballot in 2019. (Voters select a party, which then selects the person for the post.)
Ramaphosa defeated Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a senior party activist, who has served as minister of health, foreign affairs and home affairs under three different presidents. She is more radical in ideology than Ramaphosa, and perhaps more importantly, is the ex-wife of the current president. It is widely believed that Zuma would prefer her to succeed him since she is expected to do more to protect him from the consequences of those charges.
Ramaphosa won a narrow victory, claiming 2,440 votes to 2,261 for Dlamini-Zuma. That slim margin speaks to the divisions within the party and the difficulties that the new party president will face as he tries to assert control over the ANC. Compounding those difficulties is the victory of Zuma supporters in top ranks of the party that can check the new chief.
David Mabuza was elected deputy president of the ANC, and Ace Magashule won the post of secretary general, making him the person responsible for running the party on a daily basis. (Those results are being contested; Magashule won a 24-vote victory and some delegates complain that their ballots were lost.) Mabuza was premier of Mpumalanga province, which is rife with allegations of corruption. Magashule was premier of the Free State, and is similarly tainted by charges of cronyism and self dealing. Magashule is also reported to be close to the Guptas, a powerful family in South Africa that has been linked to numerous scandals involving Zuma.
Central to this power struggle will be the makeup of the 80-member ANC National Executive Committee, as it can remove the president from power. It is not yet clear which side controls that organ as Zuma loyalists and Ramaphosa supporters appear to be evenly divided in representation.
In a speech after the vote, Ramaphosa said that the ANC must end corruption “within our ranks” if it is to remain in power — its share of the popular vote has been falling in recent elections — but that effort will fail if Zuma, the most prominent offender, remains immune from scrutiny. The party conference closed with agreement to set up a judicial inquiry into high-level misconduct, which could portend a shift in party loyalties, but Zuma remains in office until 2019 and can only be recalled by a vote of no confidence by Parliament. If the election signals a shift in ANC thinking, then it might be possible to ease Zuma out ahead of his scheduled departure. His predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, left office eight months early when Zuma was elected ANC head.
Any deal to step down would likely include immunity for Zuma, which would taint the Ramaphosa administration. That liability must be weighed against the benefit of getting Zuma to leave office and lift the cloud that hangs over his government. It is not only the smell of scandal that undermines the Zuma administration; the uncertainty of an investigation that paralyzes or distracts the government is also a danger.
The new administration must get the South African economy on a solid footing. Ramaphosa has called for a “radical path of socio-economic transformation” that demands aggressive growth, job creation and the reduction of inequality. That rhetoric may sound alarming, but as a successful businessman, the international business community sees the new ANC chief as a voice for stability and reason. Unfortunately, that same language has been adopted by the populists in the ANC, and their power in the party and the executive remains formidable. Ramaphosa has won an election but the struggle for control of the party and the government continues.