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South African democracy survives the sordid presidency of Jacob Zuma

South African democracy survives the sordid presidency of Jacob Zuma
Supporters for president elect Cyril Ramaphosa, portrait on t-shirt, sing and dance outside in Cape Town, South Africa, on Feb 15. (Nasief Manie / Assoicated Press)

Jacob Zuma stepped down as president of South Africa on Wednesday, leaving a nation weakened by his nine years of rule yet in the hands of the same political party — the African National Congress — that has won every election since universal suffrage began in 1994. Zuma's fate was sealed when the ANC rejected his preferred candidate for party leadership in December in favor of anti-apartheid leader-turned-businessman Cyril Ramaphosa. The job was completed this week when the ANC-dominated National Assembly threatened Zuma with a no-confidence vote and, on his resignation, elected Ramaphosa to succeed him.

The enduring power of the legendary political party to steer southern Africa's most populous nation and the continent's second-largest economy is both good news and bad. Formed in 1912, the African National Congress fought a sometimes violent battle (alongside other parties and organizations) to dismantle the racist regime that kept non-whites from power, restricted their movement and denied them equal access to employment and education. Its moral leadership is wrapped up in the towering achievements of the late Nelson Mandela, who was the first president elected in the post-apartheid era. It remains a source of pride for many black South Africans and others who worked to bring in the multi-racial era. It is a symbol of institutional continuity and helps prop up confidence in the nation at times, like the present, when allegations of corruption and mismanagement sap the economy.

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During Zuma’s tenure the press remained free, strong and increasingly critical.


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Yet it was the ANC that led Zuma to power in the first place, helping him to oust Thabo Mbeki (another ANC stalwart) and then protecting the new president against challenges by rival parties through nearly a decade of turbulent governance.

Charges against him included rape (he was acquitted, although at the December party conference, Ramaphosa said he believed the alleged victim). Zuma also has been accused of, but not criminally charged with, 783 instances of corruption stemming from an arms deal. More broadly, critics accuse him of participating in "state capture," enabling allies to virtually loot the nation of public assets for their own personal and business gain.

The sorry state of affairs has made South Africa resemble some of its more marginally democratic or outright dictatorial neighbors and has deterred international investment.

What's more, poverty remains rampant in South Africa. The end of apartheid — and the leadership of the ANC — have failed so far to translate into material economic gains for the vast majority of black South Africans. The party remains strong compared to its rivals, but voters will not wait forever for the fruits of liberation.

The ANC has much to work on. Still, Zuma's resignation suggests that the institutions of democracy, though battered, remain intact. South Africa has a system, party-dominated though it may be, that worked, albeit in the fullness of time. There is a strong and independent (and majority black) judiciary and, government corruption notwithstanding, a respect for rule of law. The ANC turned against Zuma in part because he ignored various court orders.

During Zuma's tenure the press remained free, strong and increasingly critical. Business, although crippled by recession, became outspoken. Civil rights groups remained strong.

Ramaphosa, in order to clean up post-Zuma South Africa, will have little choice but to start by cleaning up the ANC. The party helped stock government with incompetent ministers and turned a blind eye — or worse — while officials engaged in graft or outright looting of the public treasury. He will be unable to fix the government without pressing for some changes in the hierarchy of the party. That will be touchy, because the ANC upper establishment still exercises remarkable control.

Ramaphosa brings with him some good will that may remind South Africans of the ANC's less compromised days. He fought white minority rule in the 1970s and 1980s. He was close with Mandela, who wanted Ramaphosa to succeed him as president. He is a welcome change from Zuma.

He's also a wealthy man. After losing to Mbeki in the post-Mandela election, Ramaphosa entered the private sector and became a successful businessman, owning and later selling South Africa's chain of McDonald's restaurants, and becoming a director of New Africa Investments Limited, a holding company that among other things produces television programs and movies. Investments include banking and mining interests. According to a 2015 Forbes estimate, his fortune is worth about $450 million.

That might make him an odd choice to inspire poor South Africans. But amid all the talk of corruption in the Zuma regime, there has been no suggestion that Ramaphosa built his business empire on anything other than good sense and good fortune. It's just possible that he is an honest yet rich revolutionary. Welcome to the new, new South Africa.

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