The election in December of Cyril Ramaphosa (CR) as African National Congress (ANC) president has brought a sigh of relief to many South Africans. There is both euphoria and trepidation.
The sigh of relief is no indication that mass support for the ANC will be forthcoming any time soon. Jacob Zuma’s Presidency and the widespread feeling that the ANC as a collective presided over South Africa’s most contemptible and corrupt Presidency has done significant damage to the party’s image and ability to lead society with moral authority. So damaging has been the Zuma era that anybody other than another Zuma in the public eye is much better than facing another decade of rupture, neglect and plain malevolence that were tearing South Africa apart.
Given the looting and the unassailable jail-free cards Zuma’s political monopoly machine was dishing out to cronies, no one could be blamed for continuously looking north, at Robert Mugabe, as an example of how South Africa’s own dystopian future was being brought forward following almost a decade of misrule.
South Africans should be grateful for three things: the continued fierce independence of the judiciary, the prevalence of a vibrant democratic impulse and the impact of obstinate investigative journalism that has flourished – ironically, during the Zuma era, when there has been increased securitisation of the State.
Trepidation is being felt because CR’s victory comes with its own challenges. CR has been handed a diabolical leadership cocktail, both within the ANC’s so-called Top Six and its National Executive Committee. CR’s camp makes up roughly 50% of the ANC membership, with the remainder comprising the Zuma gang.
A lot has been made of the fact that CR is saddled with Zuma cronies and that he will be hampered by the leadership that emerged at the party’s December elective conference as he will be tested in his ability to hold pervasive influence over the entire body of the ANC and its alliance partners. The truth is that a new political geography within the ANC is being drawn. We are in for an interesting 2018.
In politics, when the ground shifts, it often offers an opportunity rather than a constraint. Political interests shift if the incumbent – in this case, Zuma – is viewed as a spent force. Zuma’s allies are eyeing a ‘new deal’, as the old deal reached its expiry date on December 16, 2017. Complicating matters for Zuma, the courts have ruled that a President whose conduct is contrary to the Constitution and the will of the people can face impeachment by Parliament. So, Parliament must do the right thing: be the guardian of our constitutional dispensation.
CR’s challenge is less about the Zumas in his camp and more about the Faustian bargain he is willing to strike with the post-Zuma lites.
One is warned not to make a fetish of figureheads, as one does this at one’s great peril. But CR represents as much a possibility of a renewal for the ANC as he does for the country – if he were to be elected the next President of the country. Individuals do matter when they occupy key leadership positions, but we must be reminded that they operate in the context of party democracies and the external forces they can muster behind their cause of transformational change.
Archie Brown, in his book, The Myth of the Strong Leader, avers: ‘Charismatic leadership can be won and lost, and is not generally a lifetime endowment. It is often dangerous and frequently overrated.”
Brown prefers to characterise inspirational leadership as being less about being endowed with the gift of charm and more about whether leadership is transformational or redefining. Zuma was charismatic and charming, but he was also redefining in that he used the transfer of collective power to pursue his own interests and preside over a selective patronage system – just enough to keep himself in power. CR may be both transformational and redefining, with the popular expectation that he will be the antithesis of Zuma. He has at his disposal the power that can be transformational if he can win support beyond the ANC.
Brown points out that redefining leaders, whether as individuals or collectively, seek to move the centre in their direction. They aim to alter people’s thinking on what is feasible and desirable. For CR to be transformational, in the Archie Brown sense, he has to fundamentally alter either the political system or the economic system for the better.
Brown has Charles de Gaulle, Nelson Mandela and a few others in mind when he thinks of transformational leaders that operated in the context of a democracy. Brown warns that transformational leaders are rare in democracies because change happens at a slow pace and often involves a succession of leaders to bring about systemic transformation.
The ANC may or may not be finding its moral compass and it is too early to tell whether it can cleanse itself of its detritus. A lot rides on the leadership of CR and the degree to which the ANC can mount a comeback as the people’s party. Today, it will have to do so on the basis of merit rather than its ho-hum of hankering for struggle credentials. This has no currency with the Millennials.
The economy needs to grow, but Ramaphosa will have to walk the tight- rope between appeasing big capital (in all its shades) and achieving broad-based socioeconomic change. He cannot just be a leader for growth and drop the ball when it comes to the redistribution programme.
He will have to get both right, and this will require more than Band-Aid treatment – there must be systemic change. The ANC legacy has involved being great on political openness but poor on economic inclusivity. The Zuma era has been big on the rhetoric of economic transformation, but this has meant only shifting the terrain from white monopoly capital, as the Zupta rhetoric goes, to a new breed of political entrepreneurs and monopoly capitalists.