South Africa’s new president Cyril Ramaphosa assumed office last month, two months after being appointed leader of the governing African National Congress party. His accession has sparked optimism for a new era of political stability, economic growth and good governance, said history professor David, “although it’s fair to say there are also concerns out there about what kind of leader Ramaphosa will prove to be,” he said.
The union leader-turned-mining magnate took over after the resignation of his predecessor Jacob Zuma, whose nine-year rule was frequently marred by corruption, scandal and economic stagnation. Ramaphosa’s background, experience and temperament appear in many ways to make him the perfect man for the job, observed Gordon, who specializes in southern and central Africa.
The Apartheid Years
Ramaphosa’s first great achievement was his role in organizing the National Union of Mineworkers in the 1980s, and bringing the country’s trade union leaders into alliance with the ANC, which was then in exile, explained Gordon. “Ramaphosa played a key part in the negotiations which preceded the end of apartheid rule in 1994, earning himself a reputation as deal-maker and a pragmatist.”
Following Nelson Mandela’s presidency, the leading governmental positions were given to former exiled ANC activists, such as Thabo Mbeki said Gordon. “Ramaphosa found himself edged out of politics, until recently.”
During the years that followed the end of white rule, Ramaphosa used his trade union contacts to advance his standing in the world of business. “Helped along by policies of Black Economic Empowerment introduced by the post-Mandela presidency of Thabo Mbeki,” said Gordon, “Ramaphosa was appointed to the boards of some of the continent’s leading mining companies, making himself very wealthy in the process with a personal fortune of more than half a billion dollars.”
This transition from labor leader to tycoon, from mineworker advocate to mine owner, is regarded by some as a cause for concern. “Ramaphosa’s reputation in some circles as ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’ was cemented in 2012, when workers at one of his platinum mines went out on strike. But it was a so-called ‘wildcat’ strike, not officially sanctioned by the union, and Ramaphosa declared it illegal. The police went in and thirty-six people were killed, nearly eighty injured. Although Ramaphosa was cleared of any repsonsibility for the police action,” said Gordon, “many continue to blame him for the so-called ‘Marikana massacre.'”
Current issues facing the government
The plus side of Ramaphosa’s great wealth is that it might make him less prone to corruption, and more able to fulfill his presidential promise of tackling South Africa’s endemic corruption problem—a key factor in the demise of his predecessor Zuma, said Gordon.
Another political hurdle Ramaphosa has to deal with is the issue of land reform, particularly the redistribution of property to the country’s black majority following the end of minority white rule. “The South African parliament recently passed a policy of land expropriation without compensation, and Ramaphosa is under pressure to implement this,” said Gordon. The president has his concerns, however, and has warned against the potential anarchy which could happen if unorganized land seizures start happening.
“The wealthy, land-owning whites are, naturally, also nervous about having their land taken from them, and look to Ramaphosa to act as a brake on this, citing as a warning the example of Zimbabwe, where haphazard land-grabs led to a violence and economic chaos.”
Ramaphosa’s race for the leadership of the ANC was tightly contested, said Gordon, and he was obliged to make deals with some Zuma supporters to cement his leadership. “Ramaphosa invited into his government some individuals of doubtful competency and morality, and this is another cause for concern.”
The most notorious of Ramaphosa’s cabinet members, said Gordon, is deputy president David Mabuza. “Mabuza is a very controversial figure who stands accused of corruption and murder. When Ramaphosa brought him into his government he really did a deal with the devil, and many observers, including myself, are worried that someone like Mabuza is so close to the center of power.”
On the plus side, however, explained Gordon, Ramaphosa has also employed some former Zuma opponents who appear capable and trustworthy, such as Pravin Gordhan as minister of public enterprise, and minister of finance Nhlanhla Nene, both of whom were dismissed by Zuma.
“Whether Cyril Ramaphosa can consolidate his power base, establish his democratic credentials and introduce stability to South Africa are key questions that need to be answered before the country holds general elections next year,” said Gordon.