ANC may have a new president, but Cyril Ramaphosa alone won’t solve South Africa’s problems

An emotional moment for everyone.
An emotional moment for everyone.
Image: Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko
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South Africa’s currency rejoiced as Cyril Ramaphosa was named the president of the African National Congress.

The party of Nelson Mandela remains a dominant political force in South Africa, and thanks to South Africa’s electoral system, the leader of the winning party almost automatically becomes the president of the country. The prospect of a Ramaphosa presidency saw the rand reach its strongest levels against the dollar since September.

The currency’s mood is an indication of business confidence in Ramaphosa, himself an accomplished businessman who has promised to steer the country’s economy in the right direction: create jobs, reduce debt and restore investor confidence.

As Ramaphosa took his place on stage in the packed hall at a Johannesburg convention center, tears began to stream down his face. It’s been a long battle for the man who was seen as a chosen successor to Mandela in the years immediately following the end of apartheid. After the party backed Thabo Mbeki as president in 1997, Ramaphosa, a former union leader, went into business. He rode the wave of black economic empowerment, becoming something of an icon of South Africa’s push to bring black business leaders to the table.

Top Six

Looking around at the table Ramaphosa shared with the other winning candidates at the elective conference, it’s uncertain just how much he’ll be able to implement the economic reforms he has espoused. The ANC is run by a team known as the Top Six, and many of those who celebrated victory with Ramaphosa were firmly in the camp of Ramaphosa’s rival, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

The new deputy president is David Mabuza, a man whose ascent to power is closely linked to Zuma’s presidency. He once flew on a jet, owned by the controversial Gupta family, to Russia—a trip South Africa’s ruling elite have increasingly taken even as Vladimir Putin’s influence over Zuma is questioned. Then there are the wake of political assassinations in Mpumalanga, the province Mabuza is premier in, as well as allegations of millions of rands lost to corruption.

Then there is Ace Magashule, the provincial leader who once spent nearly 50 million rand (about $4 million) in state funds on redesigning a website for his government departments. Magashule, too, is linked to the Gupta family as the explosive “state capture” report on corruption showed. He now holds the powerful position of secretary general. Two other members of the “top six,” Gwede Mantashe, formerly the secretary general now the national chair, and Jessie Duarte, who remains deputy secretary general, were incapable of bringing about accountability in their earlier terms, as the party lost support over Zuma’s scandals.

The entire vote came down to the wire, with rumors flying around the convention center about who was in the lead. At first the conference was delayed over a decision about what to do with ANC branch nominations that were overturned by the courts. Then there were debates on whether delegates would be allowed to take a list into the booth so that they could vote according to a slate: the names associated with either candidates.

When voting finally began, there was a dispute about whether to wait until Monday morning or vote overnight. And then finally, moments before the vote was set to be announced, the Dlamini-Zuma camp apparently asked for a recount. These were all outward frustrations of a party so split that it produced one of the tightest results in the ANC’s recent history.

Ramaphosa was supported precisely because he is viewed as a break from the years of corruption and scandal that Zuma’s terms brought. A Dlamini-Zuma presidency brought with it fears that she would only continue this legacy. Now, Ramaphosa finds himself surrounded by the very people who would have allegedly benefitted from a continuation of that cronyism.

Ramaphosa won by a narrow 179 votes and his choice for number two and other key positions failed to capture the support of the voting rank-and-file of the ANC. When the rand and Ramaphosa’s supporters sober up after the immediate celebrations, they’ll have to face the reality that saving South Africa’s economy won’t be as simple as changing the top management.