President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa has an extraordinarily tough job. He leads a country reeling from a series of corruption scandals and a party at war with itself. South Africa’s citizens are losing faith in the power of democratic governance to provide dignity and opportunity. On top of it all, COVID-19 has hit South Africa harder than any other country on the continent, and the pandemic rendered its already ailing economy even weaker. It is easy to imagine Ramaphosa privately questioning the sanity of counterparts on the continent who aim to be presidents-for-life.
Finding a way out of South Africa’s interrelated crises will require a massive effort to restore public trust in government, which entails demonstrating transparency, accountability, and competence. Without that trust, the structural reforms required to drive more growth in employment and a healthier economy will be impossible. The Zondo Commission, a judicial inquiry into grand corruption that started its work in 2018 and is slated to wrap up this summer, has provided an important baseline of transparency. But South African officials will need to ensure that sunlight continues to shine on government decisions as they happen—not just in retrospect—and more must be done to clarify the separation between the ruling party and the state itself.
Issues of accountability are even more complex, as South Africans will assess not just the consequences that catch up to notables like former President Zuma or Ace Magashule, but also their enablers in multinational corporations. Course correcting on its problem-plagued COVID-19 vaccination campaign will be a vitally important element of demonstrating what competent government can do for South Africans, but improving governing capacity overall will require following through on reforms to professionalize the public service. The trust agenda is a daunting one.
South Africans have been through a long slog, and there is more slogging to come. But there are reasons for optimism. Leadership committed to restoring trust has strong partners in South African civil society, including the journalists who covered the state capture story and the activists who hold officials’ feet to the fire on issues of service delivery. That committed leadership should also seek support internationally. South Africa’s success is essential for the region, and the United States has a clear interest in a healthy South African democracy with the bandwidth to engage more consistently on global problems that require African perspectives and buy-in to solve. President Ramaphosa enjoys a great deal of good will in Washington. One hopes he will use it strategically to help him build the renewed confidence South Africa needs.
This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.