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Cyril Ramaphosa prepares to confront South Africa's bleak future

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Among all the remarkable turns in African politics this year, one of the most momentous was December’s ANC party congress in South Africa, where the party chose a new president: Cyril Ramaphosa, who narrowly bested Nkosozana Dlamini-Zuma. Many at the conference imagined a Dlamini-Zuma presidency would be little more than an extension of her ex-husband’s, and therefore hardly a prospect to be excited about.

Jacob Zuma has always put personal enrichment ahead of the country. He has left most South Africans to wait for the elite’s corruptly acquired wealth to one day trickle down, which it can only do via the culture of patronage embedded in the ANC itself rather than via legitimate, transparent institutions.

For those who want to change this awful game, Ramaphosa is by far the better choice. He at least understands that wealth has to be created before it can be stolen. The all-theft-no-production school of management was what led to the near-total economic collapse of Zimbabwe, which Robert Mugabe’s successor Emmerson Mnangagwa is now tasked with repairing. At least Mnangagwa will now have in Ramaphosa a southern neighbour who both understands and seriously pursues economic growth and activity, rather than one who legitimises personal corruption by reference to a liberation story that’s fast receding into history.

So can Ramaphosa wait till he runs for the national presidency in 2019 to get started? He may not have to: already rumours are flying that the ANC will seek to recall Zuma before then, though clearly rebuilding the economy takes precendence over dethroning and prosecuting someone who treated it as a personal ATM.

In any case, simply getting rid of Zuma won’t rid the ANC of its culture of patronage. The hope is that Ramaphosa will be less than susceptible to the same old corrupt players. Zuma’s friends and acolytes will have been making overtures to him, but he is already so successful in business, and so wealthy, that he may not see any allure in the money that comes with being bought. Still, even if he proves incorruptible, that doesn’t mean those around him will be so impervious.

Ramaphosa, who sat in stunned reflection on the podium after the vote was announced, has come a long way in his decades-long career. He is no longer the hard-charging union boss he was in the 1980s, or the brilliant ANC negotiator he was at the talks that transitioned the country from apartheid. With his cultivated taste in fine wines and first class travel, he is every bit the corporate capitalist, the mining company executive whose workers were shot at Marikana in 2012.

Having been passed over by Nelson Mandela, he has now made it to the top more than two decades after liberation. His stunned expression on stage was very much the look of someone who has long struggled for his place in the sun, and could now not quite believe he’s now basking in it.

Who really wins?

The South African economy’s problems aren’t just managerial, but structural. Inequality is widening, and formal sector unemployment is growing; investment in key sectors is shrinking, while the economy has too long catered for a growing middle class rather than an even faster growing underclass.

Immediately after Ramaphosa won the party presidency, investor confidence seemed to surge. But even if this prospective inflow comes through, it will be mostly channelled between large corporations with international links and liquidity flows. At the small and medium enterprise level, the picture may be far less optimistic.

Expensive but largely failed efforts at Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment may soon come to a close, but what would replace them is unknown. These initiatives became patronage programmes as much as positive discrimination tools, and only a few of their beneficiaries have risen into South Africa’s higher corporate echelons. They created a lower middle class that depended on state grants and state protection, and which could not accomplish sufficient productivity to generate their assured own reinvestment.

If he loses the support of this dependent lower middle class, Ramaphosa will also lose a key electoral asset – and the sense that, by hook or by crook, economic progress was possible.

The loudest complaints from South African workers are directed at workers who come there from other parts of Africa. The joke on the streets is that Nigerians are so entrepreneurial that they move faster than South Africans care to think. Whatever relationship that stereotype bears to reality, the lurch forward may indeed require that South Africans get up to speed.

Is that what Ramaphosa will achieve? The “Nigerianisation” of South Africa? A slightly improved Zumaesque South Africa? A Zimbabweesque basket case where only the super elite has money at its disposal? Perhaps Ramaphosa was pondering all these things in his stunned podium silence. The man who would be king now finds himself wearing a heavy and thorny crown.

The ConversationStephen Chan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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