On the eve of the 25th anniversary of democracy in South Africa, the African National Congress (ANC) still holds power in a nearly hegemonic way. Nevertheless, the popularity of the party is decreasing while economic and social inequalities are deeply entrenched in the country. The legacy of apartheid cannot be dismissed in explaining the state of South African society but the ANC is now facing its own responsibilities, especially since many cases of corruption and mismanagement of public resources have been revealed, particularly under Jacob Zuma's presidency. It is in this difficult context for the ANC that Cyril Ramaphosa was elected party leader in December 2017 and then president of South Africa after Jacob Zuma's resignation in February 2018. This succession has highlighted the deep divisions within the ANC. More than a year after taking office and on the eve of the 2019 general elections, Cyril Ramaphosa faces a dual task: to preserve the unity of his party and to remedy the dissatisfaction of a growing proportion of voters by proposing concrete changes.
Preserving the unity of a divided party
Since the foundation of the ANC in 1912, different ideological currents have historically crossed the party. Its positioning oscillates between non-racialism and African nationalism or between the promotion of the middle classes through liberal economic reforms and pro-poor and pro-worker social policies. This multiple positioning attracts a broad gathering but inevitably leads to divisions, which are exacerbated during internal elections. This was confirmed in the run-up to the last ANC National Conference in December 2017 that led to opposition between two factions. One was coalesced around Cyril Ramaphosa and promised to break with Jacob Zuma's political practices. Cyril Ramaphosa pledged to eradicate corruption, revive the economy and attract more foreign investment. The other faction, united around Jacob Zuma, had Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as its candidate. This faction embodied the continuity of the incumbent president and promised to accelerate the country's economic and political transformation. Tensions were high during this conference and the outcome was an almost equal balance of power between the two factions. Cyril Ramaphosa won with less than 200 votes out of nearly 5000 delegate votes, which is unprecedented. This balance of power was also observed for the election of the 6 most important positions of the ANC and among the members of the National Executive Committee (NEC), the party's decision-making body.
Cyril Ramaphosa presents himself as the candidate for renewal but he has to deal with the opposite faction. He cannot marginalize it because that would antagonize half of his own party. Since his election he has found himself in the paradoxical and delicate situation of being the one who should embody change, and thus send evidence of his intentions inside and outside his party, but also preserve the internal unity of the ANC. He was able to convince his comrades of the need for a change in the run-up to the next general election. However, Cyril Ramaphosa did not get rid of the former president's faction and he is trying to respect the party's balance. In particular, he has associated Jacob Zuma's relatives with his government: Malusi Gigaba at the Ministry of Home Affairs, David Mabuza as Vice-President of the country, and both Bathabile Dlamini and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as ministers to the presidency.
Fighting corruption and mismanagement
The fight against corruption and mismanagement of public resources was made a priority after the Jacob Zuma era, which was marked by many scandals. Shortly after his election, Cyril Ramaphosa announced changes in the management of the main public companies known for their dysfunctions. This was particularly the case with Eskom, the South African electricity public utility, and South African Airways.
Moreover, while the judiciary is independent in South Africa, many cases have made significant progress since Cyril Ramaphosa came to power. Without having initiated these advances, the new president stopped delaying the work of investigators and judges, which was his predecessor's main strategy. Since August 2018, a commission of inquiry has been tasked with investigating a potential "state capture" by private actors and its findings could lead to legal proceedings.
Embodying economic and social transformation
Cyril Ramaphosa has embarked on a major reform initiated by an ANC declaration at the last national conference: the redistribution of land without compensation. Since 1994, no major reforms have been carried out by the ANC to challenge the right to land ownership inherited from colonization. This issue is a sensitive one in South Africa because it questions the foundations of the notion of reconciliation promoted at the end of apartheid. Indeed, black populations are demanding redistribution or reparations, while the white populations are very attached to their lands for economic or symbolic reasons. Today, the issue of land redistribution without compensation is popular with the majority of South Africans. President Ramaphosa's commitment must obviously be seen in the context of the election campaign in order to position the ANC as a major player in economic and social transformation. For Cyril Ramaphosa, it is also an opportunity to undermine the demands of the Zuma faction as well as the opposition, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in particular. This reform, which is of great symbolic importance, will have uncertain political and economic repercussions.
A different approach on the international scene?
Jacob Zuma was not very active internationally and seemed more focused on domestic affairs. While he worked for South Africa's admission to the BRICS group, he also damaged the country’s image as an exemplary international citizen. South Africa was particularly singled out when, in 2015, it refused to arrest Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on its territory, despite the fact that he was under indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Jacob Zuma had also set South Africa on the road to leaving the ICC. Since coming to power, Cyril Ramaphosa has not yet spoken out on this topic but seems to be in much less of a hurry than his predecessor. Like Nelson Mandela, of whom he was a disciple, the new president is trying to restore his country's image abroad.
Under Jacob Zuma, South Africa's position on the international scene was characterised by an anti-imperialist stance, and by rapprochement with or even dependence on Russia and China. On the strength of President Zuma's determination, South Africa undertook to develop its civilian nuclear capabilities by reaching an agreement with the Russian company Rosatom. The staggering cost of this project, probably unaffordable for South African finances, and the opacity of the negotiations, leading to suspicions of corruption, was widely criticised by the opposition and civil society experts. Shortly after coming to power, Cyril Ramaphosa indicated that this project was no longer relevant due to the country's financial capacities and its commitment to promote renewable energy. In addition, in contrast to his predecessor, the South African president has made numerous visits to Western countries to convince them of the changes taking place in his country and attract foreign investment.
While the ANC is expected to retain power in South Africa, the result in the 2019 elections will measure Cyril Ramaphosa's ability to reverse the electoral downturn of recent years. But beyond campaign promises, in the coming years he will have to demonstrate his capacity to initiate concrete changes for the South African population. Otherwise, tensions will continue to be high in both South Africa and the ANC, and could eventually lead to political change.