In late October, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa issued his response to the recommendations and findings of the Zondo Commission, the high-level inquiry that spent years uncovering the sordid details of corruption during former President Zuma’s administration. From a policy perspective, his response was mixed, accepting some recommendations such as making the corruption-investigating Independent Directorate a permanent institution, but declining to end the practice of cadre deployment, which could change the nature of the African National Congress’ (ANC) power in South African society. Rhetorically, while acknowledging that it would take time to overcome the public mistrust in the state, he took pains to signal that an era was ending, and that South Africans could look forward to “renewal” and “a new chapter.”
At one level, his effort to pull his beleaguered countrymen and women out of the doldrums and turn to a crisp new page in South Africa’s story is admirable. Polling shows that South Africans are frustrated by corruption, disappointed in their government, and eager for more opportunity. Delivering the country from apartheid’s unjust legacy is a monumental, multi-generational project, but now there is a post-apartheid legacy of state capture that must also be overcome. Trying to set a new and invigorated tone at the top makes sense. But this effort to assert leadership may wind up inducing even more cynicism, as the parastatal mismanagement and ANC infighting that have dominated so many headlines for years are still very much a part of the landscape and the President’s own credibility on the rule of law has been undermined by the Phala Phala scandal.
On November 30, a panel of inquiry appointed by the Speaker of the National Assembly delivered a report indicating that Ramaphosa may have committed serious violations of the law in the incident, in which large amounts of foreign currency were apparently stolen from the President’s private farm in 2020–a crime which was not reported to the police. The President has denied any wrongdoing. As the national conference of the ANC draws ever-closer, the cloud hanging over Ramaphosa, now including the prospect of impeachment proceedings, is likely to heighten the intra-ANC political dramas that have constrained his government to date, forcing him to spend as much time and energy on holding the party together and fending off rivals as governing the country itself.
For the United States, which lately has invested a great deal in the U.S.-South Africa relationship, it will be as important as ever not let wishful thinking lead to unrealistic expectations of the partnership. President Biden has talked about South Africa’s “vital voice on the global stage” and the country as a “leader in the international order.” But one does not have to doubt the country’s importance to anticipate that its leadership will be internally distracted for quite some time to come.