South Africa: Ramaphosa navigates tricky transition

South Africa: Ramaphosa navigates tricky transition

Bearing floral wreaths and observed by a crowd of local supporters, the newly elected leadership of the ANC marked 106 years of the party by solemnly visiting the East London gravesite of four founding presidents.

United by their storied history, the stark political differences between incoming president Cyril Ramaphosa, deputy president David Mabuza and secretary general Ace Magashule were momentarily obscured. While the celebration of long-dead leaders remains a bonding force, navigating the living legacy of Jacob Zuma – the ANC’s most recent leader and South Africa’s divisive outgoing president – is a far more fraught challenge.

Since being narrowly elected ANC leader in December in a bitter inter-party contest against Zuma’s hand-picked successor, the pro-business Ramaphosa has quietly set about grasping the reins of power. Yet with Zuma allies elected to key senior roles in the party, Ramaphosa’s ability to close an era of state patronage, sluggish economic growth and unending political scandal remains in doubt.

“It’s a very tricky transition period. Ramaphosa does have the upper hand at the moment – the momentum is in his favour, there are defections from the Zuma camp and everyone knows he will be the next president,” says Robert Besseling, political analyst at ExxAfrica.

“[But] Zuma is still firmly entrenched in the party and government – of the new leadership three of the top six are in his camp, more than half of the National Executive Committee are still associated with the Zuma camp and the vast majority of lawmakers in parliament are in the Zuma camp.”


The fractured political landscape is complicated by an ANC quirk which means that while Ramaphosa is now party leader of the ANC, Zuma officially remains president of South Africa until the 2019 elections – a system seemingly designed to fuel government inertia and inter-party factionalism. At time of going to press, rumours suggested that Zuma could be ousted in a matter of weeks. 

Faced with this delicate balancing act but safe in the knowledge that time was on his side, Ramaphosa had previously broached the question of Zuma’s early exit with magnanimity, sending signals that a dignified transition was likely.

“We need to deal with this matter with the level of maturity it requires, with the proper decorum and I’ll say we should never do it in a way that’s going to humiliate President Zuma. We should never do it in a manner that’s going to also divide the nation,” he told local media.

Whether Zuma departs immediately or clings on, the terms of exit are likely to be keenly fought over. Zuma’s priority is to continue avoiding hundreds of criminal charges stemming from his alleged role in a multi-billion rand arms deal dating back to the 1990s, as well as delaying further legal pressure relating to corruption allegations.

While Ramaphosa is keen to avoid anything that smacks of the humiliation of his predecessor, shielding his rival from criminal charges would be a controversial and uncomfortable move for a politician who made anti-corruption efforts a key plank of his election strategy. A delayed pardon could allow him to save face.

“It’s certainly possible that if Zuma is going to be retired early there could still be legal proceedings underway, but I don’t believe they can be short-circuited or undercut in terms of an intervention [by Ramaphosa],” says political analyst Daniel Silke. “But an intervention could come at a later stage should Zuma fall foul of the courts – it’s possible I suppose that a deal can be struck whereby some sort of pardon is granted should that occur.”

Indeed, Ramaphosa’s confidence in a smooth transition may be buoyed by the knowledge that Zuma’s legal woes have limited his room for manoeuvre. In December, the High Court gave Ramaphosa the power to appoint the next head of the National Prosecuting Authority, handing Ramaphosa powerful leverage.

Zuma’s announcement that he would finally set up a commission of inquiry into state capture allegations following apparent pressure from Ramaphosa was an acknowledgement that he no longer holds all the cards. Yet the ANC are desperate to avoid the ignominy of continued factionalism, given the consequences for the ANC’s 2019 election campaign.

Gupta fallout

Complicating matters further, legal processes beyond South African shores may shine further light into the murky corners of the Zuma era – particularly the activities of his friends the Gupta business family – and increase pressure for action at home. In the United States, the FBI have begun a probe of individuals, bank accounts and companies linked to the Guptas, while US and UK regulators have also begun inquiries into banks’ ties with the family.

“It does look as though Ramaphosa’s administration will not protect the Guptas in the way they have been protected and there are rumblings in terms of the National Prosecuting Authority and what they are planning. That would be highly significant – if action is taken against them over the next few weeks that would indicate a shift in Ramaphosa’s attitude,” says Silke.

While action against the Guptas could act as a safety valve for Zuma – sating a public desire for retribution – it will also complicate matters for Zuma loyalists in the Ramaphosa government, some of whom enjoyed close relations with the family and will be wary of antagonising their new boss.

“Many of the [Zuma] loyalists are pliable, swayable and will try and ingratiate themselves to a degree, especially in light of a state capture judicial inquiry… there’s every good reason why they’d want to be in Ramaphosa’s good books,” says Silke.

Even given this apparent weakness, Zuma loyalists could continue to wield a veto on the direction of Ramaphosa’s economic policies, thwarting his pro-business leanings in favour of the populist programme of his predecessor. That may lead to wrangles over the appointment of a new finance minister, renewing tensions in the ANC and putting a question mark over Ramaphosa’s authority.

“On economic policy there’s a distinct conflict and there will be many policy battles between various factions of the ANC, says Silke. “Ramaphosa will have to steer that… there’s a lot of contradictions there and a lot of work that needs to be done and that’s going to create divisions for years to come.”

For now, current finance minister Malusi Gigaba appears to be toeing the line drawn by his new boss. “What I will be doing at the budget will be to announce the tough decisions to stabilise the debt but reduce the budget deficit… South Africans will have to bear some pain,” he told reporters in January.

David Thomas

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