Africa's new era of humble leadership

The public’s demand for honest government is reshaping a continent beset for decades by corruption and misrule.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa at the leadership conference of the ruling African National Congress. His reelection on Monday as head of the party ensures continuity ahead of the country's next national elections in 2024.

Thirty years ago, the African National Congress (ANC) represented a new African era shaped by justice, shared economic prosperity, and the rule of law. Now, South Africa’s ruling party offers a different measure of leadership on the continent – chastened by its shortcomings, tenuous in power.

That marks a transformation in how ordinary Africans view government and what they expect from their leaders. Younger, better educated, and entrepreneurial, they are increasingly intolerant of graft and impatient for opportunity. There is a “reorientation of the mindset,” Abideen Olasupo, founder of YVote Naija, a Nigerian organization promoting youth participation in elections, told openDemocracy. “We have to carry our destiny in our hands.”

Few seem more aware of these changing expectations than South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who survived weeks of unresolved corruption allegations and a threat of impeachment to win reelection today as his party’s leader. “The ANC today is its weakest and most vulnerable since the advent of democracy,” he warned the party earlier this year. “Our weaknesses are evident in the distrust, the disillusionment, the frustration that is expressed by many people towards our movement and government.”

Mr. Ramaphosa’s hold on power is no more assured than his party’s. In power since 1994, it has overseen the dramatic crumbling of Africa’s strongest industrial economy due largely to corruption. South Africans endure daily power cuts lasting as long as 11 hours. Mr. Ramaphosa has erected new government scaffolding to root out graft. So have other countries and regional blocs on the continent. But that has done little to boost the public’s confidence. A year ago, the ANC won just 46% of the vote in municipal elections.

That follows a trend across Africa. As The Economist noted last week, opposition victories are becoming normal: “25 of the 42 new African leaders to take office in the past 11 years were opposition candidates – the highest number in three decades.” Over the next two years, 30 African countries, including South Africa, will hold elections for head of state or parliament.

The African Development Bank estimates that $148 billion is lost to graft in Africa every year. More than half (56%) of Africans say corruption in their country has increased, according to the latest survey by Afrobarometer across 20 countries. Expectations of democracy have become deeply entrenched: Eighty-one percent reject one-man rule, 79% reject one-party rule, and 62% say government accountability is more important than effectiveness.

“The issue of good governance and transparency is more than just about wasted money – it is about the erosion of a social contract and the corrosion of the government’s ability to grow the economy in a way that benefits all citizens,” said Antoinette M. Sayeh, deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund, at an anti-corruption conference in Botswana in June. “Improving governance and accountability in Africa is not only possible; but it is actually happening.”

In Africa, one-man, one-party rule is giving way to a new era of leadership made humble by the popular demand for honest, effective government.

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