South Africa gets a new start

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by Hans Dembowski

The new ANC leader must face the dilemma of globalisation

Cyril Ramaphosa is the new leader of the African National Congress (ANC), and he is set to become South Africa’s next president. He must rise to huge challenges. His predecessor in both positions, Jacob Zuma, is leaving behind a mess.

At the ANC’s 5-yearly congress last weekend, the vote was close. Ramaphosa was endorsed by 2,440 delegates, while 2,261 opted for his competitor Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a former chairperson of the African Union who was divorced from Zuma. Zuma had supported his ex-wife, and it was generally assumed she would protect him from corruption investigations, should she succeed. She stood for business as usual, where as Ramaphosa promised a new start.

The ANC certainly needs a new start. Its reputation has suffered under Zuma who was involved in various scandals. The former independence movement became South Africa’s dominant party after the end of apartheid in 1994. It is still so strong that it is likely to win next year’s elections. However, it is no longer as strong as it used to be, and its internal divisions are now more obvious than ever. Ramaphosa’s margin of victory was not big.

Capital markets and investors are happy that Ramaphosa is the new leader. He has promised to fight corruption. Moreover, he is a former trade-union leader who became a very successful businessman.

To succeed in office and reaffirm the ANC’s role as South Africa’s major political force, however, Ramaphosa must do more than reassure the business community. In the 3rd decade of majority rule, far too many black South Africans still live in dismal poverty. Their hope was always that the end of apartheid would also mean an end to deprivation. For the vast majority, such hopes have not come true. Only a small black elite has become very prosperous. Zuma and his clan belong to it, and so does Ramaphosa.

Zuma’s response to popular disappointment was to make big promises and rely on anti-imperialist rhetoric. The promises did not materialise, and the longer the ANC was in power, the less convincing the anti-imperialist rhetoric became. Protests have rocked universities in recent years, and the Zuma government has looked increasingly out of touch. Zuma’s embezzlement with the Guptas, an Indian investor family, obviously added to the problems. Nonetheless, the discredited leader still enjoys considerable support within the ANC. This is why he is still in office and why his ex-wife got so many votes at the party conference. That she lost, however, proves that the majority of ANC delegates understood that Zuma is dragging their party down.

To generate new enthusiasm, Ramaphosa will have to do more than clean up the mess. Unless his government delivers on the black majority’s long-term expectations, the mood will remain bleak. The challenge is not only to trigger economy growth, but to introduce the kind of welfare-state policies that distribute the gains to masses of people. Broad-based prosperity must be the goal. Core issues include:

  • education at all levels, starting in primary schools,
  • affordable and up-to-date health care for everyone,
  • decent housing, including access to electric power and pipe water,
  • employment opportunities for the increasingly frustrated young generation and
  • provisions against old-age poverty.

These issues can be tackled, but doing so successfully will require funding. Ramaphosa will have to face the dilemma that is plaguing many governments. There are various policy measures that help to reduce inequality and promote broad-based prosperity, but they are linked to appropriate taxation and all sorts of regulations. Foreign investors and the business community are in general not fond of the prerequisites of the welfare state, though they do depend on all sorts of social and physical infrastructures.

Governments of rich nations struggle to strike the balance, and doing so is even more difficult in places where new structures must be built, and  maintaining existing systems is not enough. If Ramaphosa manages to improve the fate of the black majority, he will be remembered as a great statesman. If he does not, his time as ANC leader will just be the next episode of the party’s decline.

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