Can a New President Salvage South Africa's Ruling Party?

4 MINS READDec 20, 2017 | 19:10 GMT
New ANC President Cyril Ramaphosa faces the difficult task of pushing pro-market policies to stimulate the economy while not alienating important factions he will need in 2019 elections.
  • New African National Congress (ANC) President Cyril Ramaphosa faces the difficult task of pushing pro-market policies to stimulate the economy while not alienating important factions he will need in 2019 elections.
  • Ramaphosa will focus on revitalizing South Africa's sputtering economy by boosting investor confidence. To accomplish this, he will need to foster more policy certainty in key sectors such as mining.
  • It's possible South African President Jacob Zuma will be forced out of office in the coming months; his fate ultimately rests on his uneasy relationship with the new ANC president.

South Africa's deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, has been named the next president of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party. The announcement made Dec. 18 comes after months of brutal political jockeying against rival candidate, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (ex-wife of South African President Jacob Zuma), and following a tense vote recount. The position atop South Africa's revolutionary party is a powerful one, rivaling in influence the country's presidency. But the ANC is in disarray, and its support is dwindling. Now Ramaphosa, as its leader, will have the difficult task of trying to unite the party and of balancing constituent demands for more government services with important economic reform measures needed to keep South Africa's economy afloat.

The Business-Friendly Candidate

Ramaphosa's win gives him a critical amount of command over the short- to medium-term political and economic future of South Africa. From the beginning, Ramaphosa focused his campaign on rooting out corruption and reinvigorating the country's economy, which is the continent's most industrialized but which has also lagged in recent years. Ramaphosa's measured promises were a far cry from Dlamini-Zuma's calls for a "radical economic transformation," which were a thinly veiled promise for the forced redistribution of economic assets to the country's black majority. For this reason, international investors praised Ramaphosa's victory, hopeful that he will implement more pro-market measures than Dlamini-Zuma would have.

But Ramaphosa's time in office won't be easy. The leader will have to oversee several powerful, competing factions in the ANC and will have to execute an agenda without alienating the support he needs to win the country's presidency in 2019 general elections. This careful juggling act will complicate Ramaphosa's plans to reopen corruption probes on members of the ANC. The investigations could implicate lead party figures and create havoc within the party, making it difficult to pass necessary reforms. For this reason, Ramaphosa could choose to tackle South Africa's sputtering economy first. To be successful, he will need to find a way to increase investor confidence and remedy the policy uncertainty that has crippled South Africa's business community. One area on which he could focus is the 2017 mining charter, which has been cast into limbo over legal challenges, causing uncertainty in South Africa's all-important mining sector.

But even as the more business-friendly choice, Ramaphosa will not be a magic bullet for South Africa's ailing economy. Solving the country's structural deficiencies — including high unemployment, a rigid labor market, collapsing education standards, rampant crime and insufficient infrastructure — will take much more than Ramaphosa will be able to give, burdened as he will be by politics. Though Ramaphosa is unlikely to become bogged down in political battles with the Finance Ministry, like Zuma has, he will still be pressed to shore up electoral support for the ANC, including from the country's impoverished black majority that has traditionally made up the party's base. To maintain the ANC's popular support against the competing center-right Democratic Alliance and the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters, Ramaphosa will be pressured to offer government-funded social programs that the country can scant afford. Even still, whatever programs Ramaphosa offers, they will likely be less radical than anything Dlamini-Zuma would have implemented.

A President's Fall From Grace

Ramaphosa's election, after Zuma's term as ANC president expired, created a new center of political power in South Africa — one that clearly rivals the country's president. Ramaphosa built his campaign on criticizing Zuma for the corruption he has allowed to spread unchecked, and his election over Dlamini-Zuma pushes a deep wedge between South Africa's two most powerful positions. It will be important to watch whom other party members choose to back. If the National Executive Council — the powerful body that oversees the day-to-day operations of the ANC — falls in line behind Ramaphosa, it's possible that Ramaphosa will demand a recall on Zuma, effectively pushing him out of office before his term ends in 2019. Of course, Zuma could also choose to resign should his removal become imminent or should corruption investigations against him intensify.

Alternatively, Zuma could dig in his heels, hoping to ride out the rough months ahead. And rough they would be: If Ramaphosa and his allies choose to wage a political war against an entrenched Zuma and his powerful patronage networks, it would widen divisions in the ANC, further weakening the already ailing party. This would be good news for other South African parties, which are looking for openings to take advantage of and which are steadily gaining strength as the ANC falters. The revolutionary party is clearly at a sensitive juncture between either its permanent decline or its heroic revitalization. But if liberation-era parties across the globe are any indication, the prospects for the ANC aren't good. Ramaphosa, then, will have his work cut out for him, if he hopes to turn the party around.

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