By Max Bearak*
History awaits Cyril Ramaphosa. On Monday, delegates from South Africa’s ruling African National Congress party elected him as their new president, paving the way for Ramaphosa to become the country’s next leader.
Ramaphosa, 65, was active in the revolutionary struggle against apartheid that set his country on the path of democracy and greater racial equality — and brought the ANC into power it hasn’t lost since Nelson Mandela won South Africa’s first free elections in 1994.
In the decades since then, Ramaphosa and the ANC’s paths diverged. Meanwhile, the promise of a more equal South Africa has foundered. The ANC has failed to deliver dependable public services, and the employment growth rate is slow even by sub-Saharan Africa’s standards. Jacob Zuma, whom Ramaphosa will replace, has been accused of egregious corruption and relying politically on an economy-stifling system of patronage to curry votes. Wealth is still concentrated in the hands of a small white minority and a class of black business elites.
Ramaphosa is part of that last category — and that’s an understatement. Once best known as a trade unionist who organized giant strikes against white-owned mines, he is now a magnate with hands in almost every sector of the economy and a personal net worth of nearly half a billion dollars. In recent years, he has sat on the boards of mining conglomerates and served as the director of huge companies, including South African Breweries. He is married to the sister of South Africa’s richest black businessman.
In 2014, he stepped back from his soaring business career to reenter politics, and Zuma named him his deputy president.
Ramaphosa ran on an anti-corruption platform and ultimately beat his main opponent by just 179 out of more than 4,700 total votes at the ANC’s convention on Monday. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, 68, who conceded defeat, is considered a party stalwart, having served in ministerial roles in addition to being an ex-wife of Jacob Zuma. Many of her supporters are likely to get high positions in a Ramaphosa-led ANC, which may limit his ability to enact sweeping reforms.
The expectations for Ramaphosa to lead the ANC in a new direction are high.
He brings an urbane and pragmatic sensibility to the ANC’s leadership, though he has often come under fire for a lavish lifestyle so clearly at odds with the lives of most South Africans. Nevertheless, he has pledged to root out corruption from a government whose officials — at all levels — often brazenly use their power to enrich themselves.
That rhetoric won Ramaphosa the support of some of Zuma’s main detractors: business leaders and middle-class urban blacks. It also has many wondering whether Ramaphosa will pursue the ongoing corruption cases against Zuma. Had Dlamini-Zuma won on Monday, it was widely expected that she would protect her ex-husband, who supported her candidacy.
Perhaps the greatest expectation for Ramaphosa is that he will save the ANC from itself. A stagnant economy coupled with near-continuous scandals have for the first time in South Africa’s history driven large numbers of voters away from the party. Last year, the ANC lost control of three of the country’s largest cities: Johannesburg, Pretoria and Nelson Mandela Bay.
“A moment of great renewal is upon us, and we should not let it go by,” Ramaphosa said on the campaign trail. “We should grasp it, unite our country around one goal. The goal of making South Africa great. The goal of making South Africa corruption-free.”
*Culled from Washington Post