Cyril Ramaphosa was named president of South Africa last week, two months after being elected president of the ruling African National Congress but nearly a year ahead of his anticipated investiture as head of state. Ramaphosa stood up because Jacob Zuma, the former president, was forced from office in a stunning revolt by the ANC. The change is a last chance for the ANC to restore its image as a credible and capable ruling party. Fortunately, few South African figures are as capable or as respected as Ramaphosa. If he cannot engineer a turnaround, then it likely cannot be done.
Ramaphosa was elected president of the ANC in a party ballot held in December. He bested Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a formidable politician but, perhaps more importantly, Zuma’s ex-wife. Zuma had hope that she would succeed him, and thus protect him from the growing number of charges against him. Zuma has been accused of crimes ranging from corruption to rape; he has avoided prosecution on all charges, earning him the nickname “the Teflon president.”
Ramaphosa’s election did not necessarily signal the end of Zuma’s career. The ANC leadership remained divided, with enough Zuma loyalists in senior positions to give him hope that he could remain in office until he would step down as scheduled ahead of the 2019 election. (In South Africa, voters pick a party, which in turn selects the person for the post.)
Those hopes dissipated as even his supporters on the ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) came to the conclusion that Zuma had to go. Despite a month of intense consultations among the NEC and with the president, Zuma clung stubbornly to power. Time ran out earlier this month when the ANC agreed to back a parliamentary vote of no-confidence against him. Zuma resigned to avoid that embarrassment.
Ramaphosa was sworn in Feb. 15 as president, and he declared a “new dawn” in South Africa in the State of the Union address that he delivered the following day. It was originally scheduled to have been delivered the week before by Zuma; his problems forced its delay. In that speech, Ramaphosa repeated the pledges he made in December after that election win to “clean up South Africa.” He promised to build a society “defined by decency and integrity, that does not tolerate the plunder of public resources, nor the theft by corporate criminals of the hard-earned savings of ordinary people.”
In addition to making 2018 the year “to turn the tide on corruption in our public institutions,” he assured citizens and investors of “certainty and consistency” in policy — a pointed contrast with Zuma, whose changes in policy and personnel undermined confidence in government. Ramaphosa also promised “tough decisions … to close our fiscal gap, stabilize our debt and restore our state-owned enterprises to health.”
Promising signs are already in place. A new board has been appointed for the state power utility, which has been ensnared in allegations of corruption. And, hours before Zuma stepped down, police raided homes of the Gupta family, Indian-born billionaires who are allies of the president and who have been suspected of involvement in corruption throughout Zuma’s reign. Nevertheless, restoring confidence in the ANC and South Africa will be a challenge. The nation became divided during Zuma’s nine years in office. Corruption and inequality skyrocketed, the economy averaged annual growth of just 1.4 percent over the past decade — emerging economies like South Africa should be growing about 5 percent — and the unemployment rate is 27 percent. While Zuma has tarnished the party’s reputation, many of his loyalists remain in the ANC — Ramaphosa won December’s vote with just 52 percent of votes.
Japan has invested more than ¥115 billion in South Africa and trade between the two countries reached ¥700 billion in 2016. Nearly 300 Japanese firms operate in the country. More compelling than the economic numbers is the role South Africa plays in Japan’s diplomacy. Africa has assumed rising importance in Japanese thinking, providing raw materials as well as diplomatic support for international initiatives. In 1993, Japan launched the Tokyo International Conference on African Development, which has worked to secure peace, security and development on the continent. South Africa has been a critical partner in that effort both by virtue of its history and its membership in the BRICS.
Ramaphosa himself is no stranger to Japan, having visited the country in August 2015 while serving as deputy president. During that visit, he affirmed the two countries’ shared values and commitment to democracy, peace and opportunity. Japan should step up efforts to ensure that he succeeds as he tries to reorient South Africa and overcome the legacy of the Zuma interregnum.