On December 13, South Africa’s embattled president, Cyril Ramaphosa, survived a vote in Parliament on whether to impeach him over misconduct allegations. Less than a week later, on December 19, he won a second term as head of the ruling African National Congress (ANC). It was a remarkable turn of fortunes for a leader who, a month earlier, in the wake of a lurid scandal involving a cash-stuffed sofa, appeared to be confronting the end of his presidency. But Ramaphosa now faces the challenge of his political career. Though the recent ANC leadership race exposed, once again, the fragility of Ramaphosa’s grip on his party, his ultimate success in that race may finally have given him the mandate he needs to tackle the deep-rooted corruption that is eroding the state and strangling the economy. But it is also possible, as his critics allege, that with or without the authority to tackle the problem, Ramaphosa lacks the will. South Africans are about to find out.
In 2017, Ramaphosa seized the presidency of the ANC and subsequently became president of the country, casting himself as the savior who would rescue South Africa from the catastrophic plunder—or “state capture,” as everyone took to calling it—that occurred under the administration of his predecessor as president, Jacob Zuma, who had served in the role since 2009. But five years into a presidency that has yielded insufficient progress on corruption, Ramaphosa finds himself mired in a crisis of his own making. Amid crippling factional battles in the ANC, the government’s popularity has collapsed, and voter surveys suggest that it is likely to lose South Africa’s next general election, in 2024. With a fragmented opposition that has, to date, struggled to produce a credible candidate, the country appears headed for chaos.
It is all so far from the dreamlike optimism of that May morning in 1994 at Nelson Mandela’s presidential inauguration when the former freedom fighter and political prisoner was saluted by the country’s military, a gesture that came to be viewed as the ultimate symbol of a racist regime’s submission to the democratic will. Even if it was largely fiction, South Africans’ image of themselves as a rainbow nation uniting in a new destiny endured through the Zuma presidency. But the notion of Ramaphosa as the good knight who would rescue a troubled country always strained credulity. South Africa’s problems run far deeper than the state capture of the Zuma years, which were just a symptom of the disease.
For more, read John Rapley’s analysis of South Africa’s current crisis, in today’s Foreign Affairs.