President Jacob Zuma’s ouster and the ANC’s Leader Cyril Ramaphosa’s assumption of power should save South Africa. Mr. Zuma announced he was resigning Wednesday evening. However, what matters more is the fact that South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) dismissed him Sunday as a corrupt embarrassment.
The ANC traded Mr. Ramaphosa for Mr. Zuma precisely because South Africa is broken and the ANC under Mr. Zuma forfeited the respect of the people. With an election looming next year, the ANC has no chance of maintaining its traditional tight hold on voters without Mr. Ramaphosa at the helm.
Mr. Ramaphosa has much to do before the poll in 2019. His toughest and most important task is to restore South Africa’s belief in itself. Mr. Zuma, as with most wildly corrupt executives, turned idealists into cynics, hard and honest workers into scammers and connivers. Mr. Zuma’s evident greed and palpable absence of integrity influenced the public’s growing disdain for both state and regime and, indeed, for the national values that had been nurtured by late president Nelson Mandela, the icon of probity and fair dealing.
Mr. Ramaphosa must try to repair South Africa’s social fabric first, and then to rebuild accountability and transparency leading toward trust. Without some re-energizing of the country, and without turning skeptical youths (half of the country, demographically) into believers willing to reject criminal pursuits for the possibility of jobs, South Africa will find it difficult to rejuvenate itself after the lost years of Mr. Zuma.
Fortunately, Mr. Ramaphosa should be equal to the task of uplifting South Africa, dusting it off, and aiming a resilient country down the path of recovery. He was the young successor Mr. Mandela preferred, but the ANC’s elders favoured Thabo Mbeki. Mr. Ramaphosa was then credited, as a skilled negotiator and smiling problem solver, with having prevented bloodshed when Africans gained independence in 1994 and created a multicommunal state.
Earlier, Mr. Ramaphosa, a university graduate, had headed an upstart African Trade Union and the underground anti-apartheid movement that created chaos in the country’s urban townships. He greatly impressed those who knew him then as smart, savvy, thoughtful, diplomatic and resourceful. Now he is much older, wiser, still as deft with people as before, and much wealthier. If anyone can put South Africa’s immense promise back into play, Mr. Ramaphosa is the one.
But the tasks are many. South Africa’s economy is growing much more slowly than the rest of Africa, less than 1 per cent last year and possibly 1.5 per cent this year. Economists suggest that the country can only prosper if it grows at 6 per cent, a rate that would provide jobs for unemployed youths, keep up with population increases, and begin to reduce poverty and hunger. At least 40 per cent of working-age adults are not formally employed. They need houses and services, too.
In order to encourage foreign and domestic investment and economic advances, Mr. Ramaphosa will need to dramatically break with Mr. Zuma’s pay-for-play attitudes; his unabashed attempts to enrich himself and his cronies at the expense of the citizens; his conniving with Indian entrepreneurs to lease the state (“state capture”); his insouciant disregard of conventional personal and political ethics, especially regarding HIV/AIDS; and his development and direction of what has become a criminalized state. Prosecuting corrupt ANC officials would be salutary, but divisive.
Mr. Ramaphosa also needs to revive South Africa’s faltering educational system. Because of teachers who fail to teach or even show up in their classrooms, because of a shortage of textbooks, because of massive underfunding and poor salaries, and partially because losses of electric power making studying at night difficult, South Africa’s primary-school system has deteriorated since independence and its secondary system is even more endangered. Fewer than half of those who sit the annual high-school graduation exam pass, and of those who pass, only 20 per cent qualify for university entrance. Those 400,000 or so annually who fail the exams are thrust into a job market that cannot absorb them.
Mr. Ramaphosa has one other task. Negotiations this week over when and how Mr. Zuma would leave the presidency revolved around the issue closest to Mr. Zuma’s heart: how to evade the 783 charges of corruption that were recently reinstated by South Africa’s highest court, and whether Mr. Ramaphosa and the ANC central executive committee would give him immunity from further prosecution. If they do so, they run the grave risk of feeding the cynicism of citizens who already believe that political elites (and the bosses of the ANC) are only out for themselves. If they don’t, Mr. Zuma is likely to walk ever so slowly towards his final exit from South African political life.
This post first appeared, under the same title, in Globe & Mail, Feb. 14