A New Deal for South Africa

The election of a new leader by the African National Congress could signal a watershed moment in the effort to wipe out corruption and cronyism, and improve the lives of poor South Africans.

Rogan Ward/Reuters
The new president of the African National Congress (ANC), Cyril Ramaphosa, tours the Nasrec Expo Centre, where the 54th National Conference of the ruling party took place in Johannesburg, South Africa, Dec. 19.

The African National Congress flag consists of three colored bars: Black represents the people of South Africa, green the fertile land, and gold the abundant mineral wealth.

With Nelson Mandela at its helm, the ANC in 1994 ended apartheid and white minority rule as the world looked on in awe and gratitude at a remarkably peaceful transition of power.

But the metamorphosis of the ANC from a passionate revolutionary movement into an effective ruling political party has not gone smoothly. While the ANC has been able to close somewhat the gap between a vast undereducated and impoverished black majority and a well-to-do white minority, a wide chasm of inequality in income, employment, and opportunity still exists.

Jacob Zuma, ANC leader and president of South Africa for the past eight years, has embodied many of the shortcomings of his party. He has been dogged by accusations of corruption and scandal that have put into question whether the ANC leadership has lost sight of its lofty goals, becoming instead a party that enriches those at the top who use patronage jobs to keep and misuse their positions of power.

That’s why so much attention is being paid to the ANC party elections held Monday. The choice of Cyril Ramaphosa as the new party leader (and South African president-in-waiting) has renewed hopes that the ANC will heal itself.

In some ways Mr. Ramaphosa is an unlikely reformer. The longtime party member, who currently serves as deputy president to Mr. Zuma, has not been among Zuma’s leading critics.

Many years ago Ramaphosa had been Mr. Mandela’s first choice to succeed him as president. When rival factions blocked that move, Ramaphosa left politics, using his connections to become a wealthy businessman.

But reformers take heart from the fact that Zuma backed a different candidate, his former wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, to be his successor. That has left Ramaphosa free to set a new course.

Some party critics hope that Ramaphosa will ask Zuma to step down as president in the next few weeks, hastening the timetable for change. But if not, Ramaphosa will almost surely be elected president when Zuma’s term ends in 2019 (he is ineligible to run for reelection).

Ramaphosa is known more as a conciliator and low-key negotiator than a firebrand leader. But in a speech last month he sounded like the just the reformer the country seeks.

He spoke of the need for “an uncompromising rejection of corruption, patronage, cronyism and wastage” – part of what he pledged will be a New Deal for South Africa. He added: “To those with vested interests in ineffective governance, deliberate misgovernance, hidden deals, the concentration of economic control and unfair labour practices, we say: no more.”

But change won’t be possible, he said, “as long as key public institutions continue to be used for the criminal benefit of a few and public resources continue to be looted.”

He concluded: “We want every rand stolen from our people returned. We must search for this money in bank accounts throughout the world.”

Will this encouraging talk result in action? Will the black band on the ANC flag finally reap the benefits of its green and gold riches?

If so, the election of Ramaphosa someday may be seen as the greatest moment of progress for South Africa since the Mandela revolution itself.

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