Cyril Ramaphosa’s victory in the African National Congress (ANC) leadership race is good for democratic institutions, the rule of law, and the South African economy, at least in the short term. He is likely to become the state president following the 2019 elections, and he may force the corrupt and discredited Jacob Zuma to relinquish the presidency before then.
Zuma’s chosen candidate in the ANC leadership race was Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a medical doctor, multiple times a minister, a former chairwoman of the African Union Commission, his ex-wife, and the mother of four of his children. Her strong run benefited from Zuma’s patronage/clientage networks and his hold over the party’s machinery, but this control was not absolute. Ramaphosa’s victory in part was the result of that very same ANC machinery disqualifying certain delegates on technical grounds, many of whom would have supported Dlamini-Zuma.
The race reflected deep divisions within the party, partly over personality, but increasingly also over policy. An architect of the post-apartheid political settlement based on the constitution and rule of law, as well a billionaire businessman, Ramaphosa favors addressing the pervasive poverty of the black majority by growing the South African economy following market-oriented principles and creating a favorable investment climate. On the other hand, Dlamini-Zuma represents the populist wing of the party. In her rhetoric she favors redistribution of the country’s wealth from the white minority to the black majority with little attention to the concerns of the domestic and foreign investment community. She appeared sympathetic to her ex-husband’s attacks on the media, the courts, and the rule of law, all of which act as barriers to radical economic change.
Jacob Zuma’s term as president lasts until 2019, unless he is impeached, removed from office because of court rulings, or resigns. Earlier in 2017, impeachment came closer to success than in the past, even though he still controlled the party. Under Ramaphosa, he no longer will. Court cases against him are likely to continue. As was the case with Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, resignation might become attractive to Zuma because he would retain his pension rights and the other emoluments of a former president. He might also be able negotiate an arrangement whereby he is able to hold on to his wealth, as Mugabe did. However, unlike in Zimbabwe, South African civil society is very strong and the judiciary is independent, and both could prevent Zuma from enjoying such a sweet deal.
The populist wing of the ANC reflects the sclerotic pace of post-apartheid economic change in South Africa. Since it came to power in 1994 until the last years of Zuma, the ANC has largely followed the economic policies of the Washington Consensus associated with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Even Zuma’s deviation was more of one of rhetoric and cronyism than any real commitment to radical economic policies. Ramaphosa’s win is a victory for the Washington Consensus. Conversely, Dlamini-Zuma’s defeat may galvanize a radical faction within the ANC that advocates moving economic policy away from the Washington Consensus.