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New president’s uphill struggle to get South Africa back on track

It is concerning when a head of state has counts of corruption, fraud, racketeering and money laundering levelled against him, worse still when there were allegations of rape. Last week, Jacob Zuma finally yielded to growing pressure from the African National Congress and resigned as president of South Africa. Dismissed as deputy president in 2005 after he was implicated in a corruption trial, it seems this time Zuma is completely politically played out.
The ANC has been the ruling party of post-apartheid South Africa since Nelson Mandela’s historic 1994 election. However, plagued by scandal and a deeply rooted culture of corruption, the party has lost its association with its noble founding principles of black emancipation and ending apartheid. The question now is how much longer the party of Mandela can extend its monopoly over South African politics and indeed recover under the leadership of its current chairman and the country’s interim president, Cyril Ramaphosa.
Zuma had famously pronounced that the party was more important than South Africa itself and indeed that it would rule the country “until Jesus comes back.” His political implosion highlights how far he has strayed from the revolutionary zeal of the ANC in a career mired in corruption and mismanagement. Zuma was forced out not because of legal pressure, nor the ballot box, but because the party that had carried him for so long judged his position to be untenable and his leadership greatly damaging.
In many respects, this son of a widowed domestic servant was a great asset to the ANC. With no formal education, Zuma naturally connected with South Africa’s disenchanted masses. A proud Zulu, with over 20 children, he spoke the language of forgotten South Africans and positioned himself as their champion. As a fellow inmate of Mandela’s on Robben Island, Zuma had the anti-apartheid credentials of his peers and, perhaps for this reason, ANC officials continued to rally behind him during his nine turbulent years in office.
However, the specter of corruption always seemed to haunt Zuma’s political career. In the 1990s, an arms deal he was involved in soured. As Zuma avoided prosecution, a pattern developed whereby he continually managed to extricate himself from due process. The case of his homestead in Nkandla plagued the presidency as he doggedly refused to pay the $650,000 owed to the state for personal upgrades to his home. In the autumn of last year, this culminated in South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal upholding a High Court ruling to reinstate nearly 800 corruption charges filed against Zuma before he became president.

Ramaphosa inherits top job at a key juncture, as ruling ANC must overcome serious economic and social challenges to regain the confidence of South Africans and show that it is fit to govern.

Zaid M. Belbagi

While the president allied himself with a small group of entrenched businessmen, such as the Gupta family, the poor he claimed to serve saw their economic circumstances stagnate. Corruption flourished under his administration, access was given to a small group of friends and business associates, and unqualified loyalists were appointed to head state companies. Even the renewable energy sector, the great promise for the nation’s economic future, was brought into disrepute as it became a hive of nepotism and illicit payments implicating those close to the president. 
In the spring of 2017, leaked emails confirmed that members of the Gupta family may have used their influence to secure lucrative state contracts for their companies. The regularity of the scandals around the president amplified calls for his removal, coming to a head last December, when the nation’s highest court ruled that the ANC-dominated parliament had failed to investigate the Nkandla case properly — a ruling that caused renewed opposition-led calls to impeach the president.
Once Africa’s economic success story, South Africa has become known for corrupt leadership. Under Zuma, unemployment has been greater than 25 percent and government debt has been downgraded to junk status owing to serious issues with governance. With inequality growing, the ANC has become concerned that its electoral base has grown weary of its leadership. In local elections in 2016, many middle-class black voters backed opposition parties. With national elections on the horizon in 2019, party leaders have become jittery about the prospect of having to rule through a coalition if the ANC does not do well at the ballot box.
Ramaphosa now inherits a party at a key juncture; it must regain the confidence of South Africans in order to show that it is fit to govern. A former labor minister and Mandela’s designated successor, he has vowed to fearlessly fight corruption. A one-time activist and trade union leader, Ramaphosa has become one of South Africa’s wealthiest businessmen and it remains to be seen whether he seeks to make a difference, or indeed represents more of the same from a party struck down by division and lethargy. 
South Africa faces serious economic and social challenges, which pre-date the Zuma years — though he eroded public confidence — and any president faces an uphill struggle in getting the country back on track.
Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid