South Africa’s Transition from Zuma to Ramaphosa

Jacob Zuma's nearly decade long regime competed with Thabo Mbeki as the worst presidency of South Africa's short post-apartheid order. 

Jacob Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa. Image by GCIS South Africa. Flickr CC.

On Valentine’s Day, Jacob Zuma announced that he would resign as South Africa’s President. Earlier that day Zuma gave a surreal, rambling speech disguised as an interview, where he maintained that he had done nothing wrong in his nine years as president. If Zuma’s aim was to project an air of defiance, watching the speech live on Youtube he came across as pitiful, alone and sad. This was a far cry from his reputation as a Machiavellian strategic operator who had repeatedly defied public opinion and his party. Zuma survived eight motions of no confidences in Parliament, including one last year, where some ANC members broke with tradition and voted with opposition parties in a secret ballot. In the end, however, Zuma resigned so as not to subject himself to humiliation the next day in Parliament where ANC MP’s, were planning to vote overwhelmingly along with the opposition to throw him out.

Some, wary of the many premature obituaries written about Zuma’s political career were worried he might pull one last stunt. In that TV interview, he had made vague threats of violence and days earlier pathetic, shadowy groups like Hands of Zuma and Black First Land First, the latter implicated in professional trolling on behalf of Zuma, held marches declaring him some kind of radical figure who was only being persecuted because he was leading a vaguely defined struggle for something called “Radical Economic Transformation” against  “White Monopoly Capital” and neoliberalism.

By Friday morning South Africa had a new President, Cyril Ramaphosa, who that night delivered his first “State of the Nation” address. The positive reception given Ramaphosa — even by the usually combative Economic Freedom Front, who regularly disrupted Zuma’s visits to Parliament — was evidence that very few South Africans would mourn Zuma departure. During his nearly two terms, Zuma managed to accomplish a rather remarkable feat: uniting South Africans in their shared disapproval. One poll taken a few months ago measured his approval rating at 18 percent.

Zuma nearly decade long regime will go down as the worst presidency of the post-apartheid order. Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first democratic president, cemented a reputation as the great unifier; a father of the nation. As a result, even Mandela’s harshest critics tone down the effects of his economic policies or the failure of his regime to tackle head-on the legacies of South Africa’s racist past in favor of reconciliation.

Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, was loved by business elites and birthed South Africa’s now thriving black middle class (including the black students who fronted #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall in 2015 and 2016). Mbeki’s government, however, set records for the number of street protests against it over the privatization of water, electricity, housing evictions, and, crucially, his unforgivable denialist response to South Africa’s HIV/AIDS crisis.

Zuma was a flawed figure from the start; ANC, trade union and communist leaders such as Ronnie Kasrils (who served as a government minister under Mandela, Mbeki and Zuma), had long questioned his leadership qualities and Zuma had been implicated in widespread corruption and survived a rape trial (he was accused of raping the daughter of his former Robben Island prison cell mate). In 2005, Mbeki fired Zuma, the then-deputy president, over corruption charges. The anti-Mbeki forces including most of the left such as the South African Communist Party (SACP) and largest trade union federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), coalesced around Zuma claiming that he was the victim of a political conspiracy. It helped that Zuma came across as humble with the common touch, something the aloof Mbeki lacked. While hired mobs burned effigies of the woman he was accused of raping and chanted “burn the bitch,” the left — including COSATU’s then general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi — declared that Zuma would reverse neoliberalism in South Africa.

When the ANC’s national elective conference in the city of Polokwane (held every five years) came around in 2007, Zuma was swept into power. Mbeki was forced to retire as the country’s president one year later and in 2009, on the back of an improved ANC showing at the polls, Zuma was elected South Africa’s President. If the poor expected respite from the global recession or the negative effects of neoliberal policies from Zuma, what they got instead was increased repression and state violence, politicization of key institutions of the South African state (to settle political disputes within the ANC), widespread incompetence (for example, temporary chaos in making welfare payments to desperate poor people) and extensive political influence peddling; what South Africans call “State Capture.” The latter refers to a particular type of corrupt relationship between the state and outside interests usually capitalists, in which private interests take control of key elements of the state and are directly able to influence, guide and shape policy. South Africa has a long history of state capture; alliances and collusions between various white regimes and white business facilitated the super exploitation of the black majority during colonialism and Apartheid. In its post-apartheid version, the Guptas, an Indian business clan close to Zuma, were able to hire and fire ministers, guide state appropriation policy and even manage to change official affirmative action policy to include them as naturalized black South Africans.

Zuma broke South Africa’s left. In August 2012, police gunned down, in broad daylight, 34 miners in Marikana, in South Africa’s North West Province. The ANC government and their allies in COSATU and the SACP claimed that the murdered workers were “criminals” who, aided by potions, charged the police in a suicidal frenzy and thus deserved to die. Evidence later emerged that the police had been placed under political pressure by ANC politicians including Ramaphosa to intervene in the strike and that the massacre was not some sort of tragic accident, but a deliberate premeditated act. As a member of the mine’s board Ramaphosa sent an email saying the strike was “dastardly criminal and must be characterized as such.” As a result, “… in line with this characterization, there needs to be concomitant action to address this situation.”

Zuma later established a public commission of inquiry into Marikana, but this turned out to be a paper tiger as no one was charged or none of his ministers or even the police commissioner resigned; no one paid any political price for Marikana. This was to be expected: The post-apartheid epoch has largely meant violence, exclusion and degradation for South Africa’s black poor.

As the ANC took over the South African state, in a country where economic opportunities up to then had been closed off to black South Africans, the ANC transitioned not just to a political party, but also became a way to earn a decent salary for a lot of people. Competition for political office in the ANC, especially at local level, has increasingly became the be-all and end-all because it meant access to lucrative state contracts and the ability to accumulate wealth. Higher up in the party, access to the state through the ANC became the way to get rich quick. It also bred a new class of politicians who acted like old style warlords. Violence became inescapable to South African politics, especially in Kwazulu-Natal, Zuma’s home province. Between January 2016 and mid-September 2017, at least 35 people were murdered in political violence related to ANC rivalries there. The ANC itself counted 80 of its political representatives killed between 2011 and 2017. At one men’s hostel in Durban, the largest city in the province, 89 people were murdered between March 2014 and July 2017 in political violence. Almost no arrests have been made.

Zuma’s departure from the presidency, signals the end of outright looting in the South Africa state. It is no coincidence that the same day Zuma resigned, police raided the Guptas house in a rich suburb of Johannesburg. The brothers, evading arrest, have been on the run (along with one of Zuma’s sons) ever since. Ramaphosa’s election hopefully means an end to the parasitic corruption that has become endemic to state-owned enterprises (SOE’s) like Eskom (which supplies electricity); PRASA (rail services); and SAA (the national airline), that were heavily indebted and barely functioning.

Zuma’s regime was also characterized by instability. He hired and fired ministers at regular intervals (he averaged one finance minister every year) and kept on ministers who caused harm and despair.

Zuma governed in a highly personalized manner. He simultaneously spoke about his reign as if he were an outside observer who had no power to solve major problems or had no hand in causing them. At the same time, he used state power to hollow out or capture any part of the state that might threaten his interests, those of his vast family or the Guptas.

Everyone was expendable to Zuma; his closest allies in his journey to the presidency such as Vavi, or Blade Nzimande, former general-secretary of the SACP, and, crucially, Julius Malema, former ANC Youth League firebrand, would also become Zuma’s greatest enemies.

By the end of his presidency few South Africans cared that Zuma was a liberation hero, someone who served a decade on Robben Island prison or was key to ending violence between the ANC and a Zulu nationalist grouping — the latter acted as apartheid’s proxy in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Rather, Zuma will be remembered as someone who brought down a 105 year-old liberation movement and broke the South African left.

Zuma was able to hijack the left’s critique of South Africa’s racial and class inequalities in order to mask his own parasitic political project, rising to power through the left. For the majority of Zuma’s presidency, the left defended his every outrage. At various points they declared that Zuma would initiate a “Lula moment” in his second term or that all criticism of Zuma was the product of imperialist conspiracies against BRICS. Zuma was meant to be the left leader the country desperately needed, but perhaps if there is any consistent paradigm in the post-apartheid political order, it is that politics has been defined by a desperate search for a messianic leader who will lead the country out of its malaise, and when this leader turns out to be a failure, the search begins anew of their replacement as the way out of the new crisis.

At last December’s ANC’s national elective conference, Zuma tried to stop Ramaphosa, then his party deputy, from succeeding him. Zuma favored his ex wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a former foreign minister and, more recently, head of the African Union.

Though Zuma’s faction in the ANC ended up with half of the top six positions in the ANC, he could not halt the election of Ramaphosa as ANC President. When the result was announced, Zuma appeared shocked; the life seemed drained from his tired face. The ANC was now left with a conundrum. Elections were only scheduled for mid-2019 and Zuma was draining them votes (in local elections in 2013, largely because of Zuma’s performance, it lost the metros of Johannesburg, Pretoria and Port Elizabeth to the liberal Democratic Alliance). To hasten his departure, they pulled an old trick: When Zuma engineered a putsch against Mbeki in 2007, his backers claimed having two different people as ANC President and as president of the country, resulted in “two centers of powers.” They forced Mbeki to resign. Zuma was now in Mbeki’s position. But unlike Mbeki, who went quietly, Zuma seemed determined to stay out his term. The problem for Zuma was that Ramaphosa had been strategizing against him; turning even Zuma’s own allies against him and using them to damn Zuma publicly.

Ramaphosa is now President. He is being touted in editorial opinions, on social media and in ANC propaganda as the anti-Zuma. He is educated, articulate, technocratic and smooth, able to comfortably move from the boardroom to the mass rally, a man in other words capable of forging a social pact in favor of capital. He is seen as a competent, stable politician able to appeal to the same middle class voters who deserted the ANC en masse because of Zuma. Ramaphosa, who comes across as warm and reassuring, an excellent speaker (Zuma was none of the sort), and conciliatory, is already getting the glowing résumé.

The bar was of course very low.

A certain euphoria has accompanied Ramaphosa’s swift swearing in as the country’s President on Thursday night. Even those in social movements and human rights organizations who fought Zuma and the ANC government over substandard education, lack of affordable housing or nonexistent health services, are willing to give him a chance or are openly cheering on his presidency. Indeed the mood seems to almost mirror the fuzzy Rainbow Nation hubris of the mid-to-late 1990s, with references to the fact that, “we are all in this together” replete with ANC members suddenly quoting Mandela at the end of every speech in parliament.

While Ramaphosa is certainly preferable to Zuma and if he accomplishes his stated goals of stabilizing the economy, purging the state of its parasitic elements and restoring broken institutions to operational readiness it will be to the benefit of all South Africa, but that does not mean the left should not make a strong critique of Ramaphosa.

Ramaphosa once led South Africa’s then largest union, the National Union of Mineworkers, through the most violent and politically unstable period in South Africa’s history. He faced off against a murderous racist government, but he traded all the political capital he earned from the worker’s struggle for actual capital to become filthy rich. Ramaphosa has a personal fortune estimated at over $450 million. His defenders trot out the old line, “because he is rich already, he can’t be bought,” but the examples of Donald Trump, Silvio Berlusconi, Mauricio Macri and many others show this is sort of logic is pathetic fantasy. Indeed his rise to immense wealth wasn’t so much due to his abilities as a businessman, but rather because the ANC “deployed” him to the private sector and South Africa’s white captains of industry decided he was a man they could do business with. As a result he was catapulted into the boardrooms of such mega corporations as McDonalds and Coca-Cola. His coziness with such interests are cause for concern. While Ramaphosa might not introduce the same sort of parasitic approach to governance as Zuma, he is unlikely to prove himself to be a friend to workers and the poor.

His involvement in the Marikana Massacre is either downplayed — “he just sent an email” — or ignored altogether. His own relative silence over the last few years over Zuma’s worst excesses has been excused as just politicking.

Ramaphosa’s calling card is his anti-corruption agenda. Many South Africans disgusted by Zuma’s open corruption and the assembly line of stooges he brought into government have been swayed by Ramaphosa’s anti-corruption promises. In his State of the Nation address, Ramaphosa promised to fire the corrupt and incompetent Zuma lackeys and establish commissions investigating state capture.

His economic platform so far doesn’t depart from the policy legacy established by Mbeki and largely continued by Zuma — despite the latter’s rhetoric about Radical Economic Transformation. In his State of the Nation speech, Ramaphosa put forward such textbook neoliberal measures as special economic zones and public-private partnerships. This may be all “to restore confidence and prevent an investment downgrade” by ratings agencies, common under Zuma. But he is also aware of his base. At the same time, Ramaphosa promised to “expropriate land without compensation” for agriculture, introducing a national minimum wage and free higher education for those whose families make less than R350,000 a year. Ramaphosa will be seen as a reliable partner by global capital and there will be some uptake in terms of Foreign Direct Investment, but not enough to create the sort of jobs South Africa badly needs. For all his smoothness, neither Ramaphosa or any of the opposition parties have an economic vision that can restore South Africa to a healthy growth rate, reduce unemployment and tackle South Africa’s horrific structural inequality.

What Ramaphosa represents at one level is a return to the classic ANC model of social compact, putting forward a collective vision that favors developmental capitalism, collective aspiration and social harmony, but at the expense of the working class’ interests. Indeed, while COSATU and the SACP supported Ramaphosa’s campaign, Zuma broke the back of these once proud organizations. Ramaphosa will most likely be able to pass pro-business policy without facing any real opposition from the left.

Perhaps the biggest losers from Ramaphosa’s rise to power will be South Africa’s opposition parties, both the center-right Democratic Alliance and to a lesser extent the populist-nationalist EFF. Both centered their political strategy over the last few years on fighting corruption and removing Zuma. With Zuma gone and a slick operator like Ramaphosa in power, the opposition needs to radically reconfigure its political strategy. The DA doesn’t offer a dramatically different policy vision to the ANC, and indeed much of their appeal has been based on their supposed claim to be better managers of the state. They generally promote the same policies as the ANC; with the party’s bungling of Cape Town’s historic water crisis, combined with the widespread infighting and the shallow superficial TED talk style of their national leader Mmusi Maimane, the DA will potentially lose most of their new voters to Ramaphosa’s slick new ANC. The EFF might be better placed to hold their ground, due to the fact they actually have a dramatically different political platform to the ANC, and are prepared to bring up the new president’s darker past, in particular Marikana. (Outside the ANC, the EFF perhaps, along with the country’s media, deserve most of the credit for swaying public opinion against Zuma.)

One narrative you will for sure read in the next few days will be that “this is the beginning of ANC renewal.” “That the ANC is reformed.” That the Guptas are getting arrested and that Zuma allies in the ANC seems nervous and disorientated (and seeming under threat of arrest), are supposed signs of this. But this is an old narrative. It usually buys the ANC time. And they will probably win the next election. In the meantime, the ANC will make excuses and promises.

Such a reading of the ANC underestimates how the last decade or so damaged the ANC internally, or how much the ANC is still in the same mess it was under Zuma. Many of Zuma’s cronies and abetters can still be found across the party. (What has been remarkable is the lack of introspection or contrition on the part of the ANC. The only reason given for Zuma’s departure is the convenient “two centers of power” argument.) The plain truth is that the ANC doesn’t offer a new vision for the country.

Part of the appeal of the renewal narrative is the pathetic state of South Africa’s opposition parties and the rapid decline of the left. Without a credible opposition either in parliament or on the streets — in the form of a strong, independent trade union movement — the ANC once again appears to many as the only game in town. Ramaphosa is the main player. Ramaphosa’s political prospects seem rosy, he will in our opinion win next year’s election and recover many of the votes lost by Zuma. However, South Africa’s economic and social problems will prove a tough challenge. The current post-Zuma euphoria and renewed optimism in the ANC reflects not the strength of the party and Ramaphosa’s political platform, but rather the relative weakness of the almost non-existent left and an opposition who have lost their main calling card –– Zuma.

Further Reading

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