The Presidential Crisis in South Africa


(Rogan Ward/Reuters)

In 1994, when Nelson Mandela became the first black president of South Africa, hopes for the country were high. The government  had just ended its brutally oppressive apartheid regime, and the Mandela administration was introducing a free press and redistributive policies to empower blacks and create an egalitarian democracy. Mandela would go onto serve one term, and, much like George Washington, would retire with dignity. The situation today, however, is drastically different. Inequality is horrendous, with 10 percent of the population owning 90 percent of the national wealth. Whites still own most of the land. Seven million people are suffering from HIV/AIDS and corruption is crippling development. All of this was in the backdrop of the resignation of former President Jacob Zuma on Feb. 14. He was succeeded by Cyril Ramaphosa the following day, in a vote that lasted just eight minutes, a sign that his party – the African National Congress (ANC) – and the country were looking to quickly forget the tumultuous, nine-year Zuma administration.

Zuma was born in the rural East Coast of Southern South Africa and grew up under the brutal oppression under the apartheid regime. He has little formal education and never attended university – a chip he carried on his shoulder his entire professional life. As a teenager, he joined the ANC when it was an illegal entity and was subsequently arrested and placed in the same prison as Mandela. Following Zulu tradition, which allows for polygamy, he has four wives. His charm, humble background, and ability to connect with impoverished farmers eventually elevated him to the presidency when he defeated the more intellectual former President Thabo Mbeki in a 2008 intra-party election.

He has since disappointed the people of South Africa. In fact, writer Redi Tlhabi said of him, “Zuma lives up to his middle name. It’s a Zulu name that means, ‘I laugh at you as I destroy you.’ He is brazen and reckless.” His administration has been plagued with scandal and corruption. Presidential historian Robert Caro says, “What I believe is always true about power is that power always reveals.” Power revealed Zuma to be a poor leader whose gross corruption in a state plagued by inequality made him massively unpopular. He was charged with almost 800 charges of corruption before he even took office. Zuma has allegedly abused a rural government building program to construct his own lavish estate. He also was acquitted after standing trial for rape, after blaming his victim for wearing a short skirt.

The election of Ramaphosa as party leader in December 2017 has been embraced by many. Ramaphosa was born in Johannesburg in 1952. In college, he was arrested for leading student protests and served 11 months in solitary confinement at a Pretoria prison. After he was released, he obtained a law degree and became a labor organizer. He proved to be a skilled organizer, successfully turning the National Union of Mineworkers into one of the country’s biggest unions. When Ramaphosa and Mandela were freed and the ban on the ANC was lifted in 1990, he became the party’s secretary general. In 1994, he helped negotiate the peaceful state transition from apartheid to democracy and took part in drafting the new constitution. In 1999, when Mandela retired, he picked Ramaphosa to succeed him but the party elected Mbeki as president instead.

Ramaphosa then went to the private sector and quickly became one of the nation’s richest men, with an estimated net worth of $450 million and maintained his ties to the party. He also focused his attention on empowering young black entrepreneurs. His wealth and ties to the business community led many to feel he was out-of-touch with the massive underclass of South Africa. In 2012, this suspicion heightened when Lonmin, a mining company of which he was a board member, brutally cracked down a wildcat strike that ended in 34 deaths. However, this did not prevent him from re-entering politics. In 2014, he became the deputy president under Zuma. In the first three years of his new role, he was largely quiet about the president’s corruption. It was only until last year that he started to address corruption, calling it a “cancer” and a “monster.” This gave him the image of an opportunist and a sellout. Nevertheless, South Africa is so desperate for quality leadership that he is still a refreshing image compared to the blatantly corrupt Zuma.

Ramaphosa has a tough assignment ahead of him. His first responsibility will be to unite the ANC, before the 2019 general elections. Currently divided, the ANC was once a party that once stood for social justice. In 1960, it was outlawed and forced to go underground. Many of its leaders, most famously Mandela, were thrown in prison. It played a massive role in ending the apartheid rule. That was in the 1990s, however, and 30 percent of the county is under 15 years old so the glory days of the ANC is something they’ve only read about in textbooks. The ANC has been a massive disappointment to many and Zuma only divided the party further. Many sympathize with the party and its history, but are disgusted by Zuma’s corruption.

Aside from intra-party conflict, the country is in trouble. The economy is growing at a disastrous pace of 1 percent a year, while unemployment is above 26 percent, and as high as 68 percent among young people. International credit rating agencies have downgraded the country’s debt rating to junk. A recent survey found that eight out of 10 nine-year olds in the country are functionally illiterate. Ramaphosa must unite the ANC, rid the party of corruption, and spur development by enticing foreign investment — no easy task.


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