After Jacob Zuma's exit, Cyril Ramaphosa faces uphill task of putting South Africa back on road to prosperity, self-respect
The road back to prosperity will be hard in a nation divided by inequality but Jacob Zuma's ouster proved enduring strength of South Africa's institutions.
Jacob Zuma resigned as the president of South Africa on Wednesday, heeding orders by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) to bring an end to his nine scandal-plagued years in power. The ANC, which replaced Zuma as party leader in December with Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, ordered him to step down as president on Tuesday. When he failed to resign on Wednesday, it announced that it would back an opposition motion in parliament to force him out.
His resignation ends the career of the former anti-apartheid resistance fighter, who has four wives, a sharp tongue and a decades-long history of scandals that polarised Nelson Mandela's "Rainbow Nation". It also caps the end of a tumultuous decade in which Zuma has survived several no-confidence votes in parliament, a string of corruption allegations and street protests against his rule.
When he took the reins of the ANC in 2007 in a party putsch against ex-president Thabo Mbeki, Zuma inherited a movement riddled with divisions. Tensions have only deepened as the ANC has been accused of losing its moral compass. As criticism of his reign mounted, Zuma maintained a cheerful public facade, often chuckling when allegations against him were repeated. But he was significantly weakened as increasingly senior ANC figures criticised him in public.
The corruption and scandals
He was forced into a humiliating climbdown in 2015 after firing a respected finance minister and appointing a man widely seen as a stooge. As the national Rand currency went into free fall, Zuma bowed to pressure and re-appointed Pravin Gordhan, an admired former finance minister, to the crucial post. In a tussle that symbolised his tenacious grip over the ANC, Zuma fought on and finally got the finance minister of his choice in March 2017 when Gordhan was ousted in a midnight reshuffle.
Zuma is still fighting 783 counts of corruption over a 30 billion rand (now $2.5 billion) government arms deal arranged in the late 1990s when he was deputy president. The charges were set aside in 2009, paving the way for Zuma to run for president, but were reinstated in 2016 by the Supreme Court.
Soon after becoming president, it emerged that millions of dollars of public money had been spent on upgrades to Zuma’s Nkandla home, including a swimming pool that one minister justified as a fire-fighting resource.
Zuma weathered a no-confidence vote in parliament over the upgrades and paid back more than $500,000 after unsuccessfully trying to argue his case in the Constitutional Court.
He has also been accused of corrupt dealings with the Guptas, a wealthy family of Indian origin, and allegedly granted them influence over his cabinet appointments. That scandal also reached a climax on Wednesday when elite corruption police arrested several people at the Gupta compound in Johannesburg.
In local polls in 2016, the ANC recorded its worst electoral result since coming to power in 1994 with Mandela at the helm as white-minority rule fell. Unemployment, economic stagnation and scandals around Zuma were among reasons the ANC lost voter support.
'The man who would be king'
Ramaphosa, 65, the deputy president, must revive the economy and crack down on what he has admitted is rampant government corruption if he is to boost the party's tarnished reputation before a tricky election in 2019. He is a former trade unionist and Mandela ally who led talks to end apartheid in the early 1990s. After South Africa dismantled apartheid, Ramaphosa saw his hopes for the country's top job apparently dashed. True to his pragmatic character, he opted instead for life in business — a move that brought him spectacular wealth.
The 65-year-old's impressive rise to eventually lead the ANC following its December conference would have come as no surprise to Mandela. Mandela once described Ramaphosa as one of the most gifted leaders of the "new generation" — the young campaigners who rose in the 1970s, filling the void left by their jailed elders.
While battling for the party leadership Ramaphosa based his campaign on his pledge to rebuild the country's economy, boost growth and create much-needed jobs. "Our ability to overcome these challenges has been undermined over the last decade by a failure of leadership and misguided priorities," he said in a rally speech. "For the first time since the advent of democracy, there is a real chance that the transformation of our country may suffer significant reverses."
If he becomes president by the end of the week as the ANC has indicated is possible, his opportunity to try to transform the country will finally have arrived.
"Ramaphosa has no association with any of the corruption scandals that have plagued South Africa," wrote his biographer Ray Hartley in The Man Who Would Be King. "But the years he spent at Zuma's side, playing the 'inside game' suggest he is more comfortable as a powerful insider than as a radical reformer."
The road back to prosperity and self-respect will be long and hard in a nation so divided by race and inequality but Zuma’s ultimate demise proved the enduring strength of its institutions, from the courts to the media and the constitution.
The Rand currency, which has gained ground whenever Zuma hit political turbulence, soared to a near three-year high against the dollar on Zuma’s resignation.
“One chapter in South Africa’s political soap-opera has finally ended with the resignation last night of President Zuma,” NKC African Economics analysts wrote in a note. “It would be gratifying to see the dedication and purpose the ANC put into ridding itself of Zuma now be directed into rebuilding the economy, dealing with the corruption still residing in the ANC and improving its shoddy governance record.”
Ramaphosa's first task will be to unite the party before the 2019 elections, according to The Guardian. While it's political dominance is still mostly unchallenged, it must limit its losses and avoid a coalition government. This will not be easy. To do this, the disaffected Zuma followers must be co-opted or marginalised, even though the ideological fractures in the party remain largely unresolved.
With inputs from agencies
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