In the post-Apartheid era, it is safe to say that Jacob Zuma has become the most reviled public figure in South Africa. Zuma was essentially discredited even before he became president in 2009 by his two essential weaknesses: his relationship with money and his lack of personal integrity. The 2006 rape trial tainted him irrevocably as a man who was insensitive to the values the new South Africa was founded on. I remember South Africans commenting upon his election as president that he might be president but that “he will not be MY president.”
Zuma’s inability to manage his finances has also characterized his relationship with public money. Under Zuma, corruption became endemic and deeply tainted the African National Congress (ANC), a once illustrious organization that is turning 106 this year.
It is in this deeply troubled political context that Cyril Ramaphosa delivered his maiden State of the Nation (SONA) address last week. He opened his speech with the words, “It’s a new dawn.” Interestingly, Jacob Zuma similarly proclaimed, “It’s a new dawn” during his own first State of the Nation address in 2009. Although there was a measure of disillusionment with outgoing President Thabo Mbeki at the time, Zuma’s reference to a new dawn was not as timely as Ramaphosa’s use of the expression. This time around, the words fell on more receptive ears. The disillusionment with government now is almost complete. If Ramaphosa fails to offer something new, he is dead in the water.
African politicians are not typically as prone to political clichés as their counterparts in the Western world. But the idea of a new dawn has been repeatedly used, most recently by those commenting on the change in leadership in Ethiopia. The rhetoric of “a new dawn,” then, is not new and does not in itself bring anything new.
In order to bring real change, Ramaphosa needs to do three things—all of which are essentially about money.
First, he needs to take prompt and concrete action to prosecute Zuma for corruption as well as each person that assisted Zuma in creating a corrupt state. Similarly, Zuma should not receive a presidential pardon if he does get convicted for corruption. The prosecution should extend not only beyond Zuma and beyond the Gupta brothers who facilitated the “state capture.” As was pointed out by political commentators this week, some of those in the ANC who were cheering most loudly for Zuma during the Ramaphosa’s SONA were also those who facilitated the corruption, derived great personal benefit from it, and actively perpetuated the corrupt system by resisting efforts to remove Zuma. It was with the support of these ANC members that Zuma survived eight motions of no confidence. Their actions cannot and should not be overlooked.
Second, Ramaphosa needs to revive the ANC as an organization, starting by rooting out corruption by promptly removing and prosecuting corrupt party members. Ramaphosa should not hesitate to remove members of the top brass that occupy a position on the National Executive Committee of the ANC, such as the corrupt Secretary-General of the ANC Ace Magashule. Ramaphosa’s credibility will depend on a consistent and fearless approach to achieving the accountability he spoke of during his State of the Nation address. The loud jeering during the last part of his speech indicates the absolute urgency of prosecuting corrupt officials. It is in the best interest of South Africa to re-examine the tendency of ANC leaders to place the party before the country. It is telling that Zuma, in his resignation speech, emphasized that he does not want to divide the ANC. This, it seemed, was more important to him that uniting the country.
A third, urgent way in which Ramaphosa can bring renewal is by urgently probing the role of neo-capitalism in the perpetuation of severe poverty in South Africa. Without sincere and critical self-reflection on the foundations of his own wealth and the economics that have allowed too many ANC members to enrich themselves, it is unlikely that he will bring the economic change to which he devoted so much of his first SONA. He should not prioritize the wishes of the wealthy over the needs of the majority of South Africans who live in abject poverty.
Enough talk. It is time for swift and decisive action. If not, the new dawn will be nothing more than an all-too-familiar duskland.
Mia Swart is also the Research Director at Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC). Views in this piece belong to the author and don’t necessarily reflect the views of the HSRC.