From Zuma to Ramaphosa

Jacob Zuma won't be remembered as a liberation hero, but as a corrupt leader who broke the South African left.

Jacob Zuma attends a luncheon for world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly on September 20, 2016. Peter Foley / Getty Images

On Valentine’s Day, Jacob Zuma announced that he would resign as South Africa’s president. Earlier that day Zuma gave a surreal, rambling speech disguised as an interview, where he maintained that he had done nothing wrong in his nine years as leader. If Zuma’s aim was to project an air of defiance, he came across as pitiful, alone, and sad. This was a far cry from his reputation as a Machiavellian strategic operator who had repeatedly defied both public opinion and his party.

Zuma survived eight motions of no-confidence in parliament, including one last year, where some members of his own party, the African National Congress (ANC), broke with tradition and voted with opposition parties in a secret ballot. In the end, though, he resigned so as not to subject himself to humiliation the next day in parliament, where ANC members of parliament were planning to join the opposition in voting to throw him out.

Some, wary of the many premature obituaries written throughout Zuma’s political career, were worried he might pull one last stunt. In his Valentine’s Day interview, he had made vague threats of violence and days earlier shadowy groups like “Hands of Zuma” and Black First Land First — the latter implicated in professional trolling on Zuma’s behalf — held marches declaring him a kind of radical figure who was only being persecuted because he was leading a vaguely defined struggle for something called “Radical Economic Transformation” against “White Monopoly Capital” and neoliberalism.

But by Thursday morning South Africa had a new president, Cyril Ramaphosa, who that night delivered his first State of the Nation address. The positive reception that Ramaphosa received — even from the usually combative Economic Freedom Front, which regularly disrupted Zuma’s visits to parliament — was evidence that very few South Africans would mourn Zuma departure. During his nearly two terms, Zuma managed to accomplish a rather remarkable feat: uniting South Africans in shared disapproval. One poll taken a few months ago measured his approval rating at 18 percent.


Zuma’s nearly decade-long rule will go down as the worst presidency of the post-apartheid order. Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first democratic president, cemented a reputation as the great unifier — a father of the nation. As a result, even Mandela’s harshest critics downplay the negative effects of his economic policies or the failure of his regime to tackle the legacies of South Africa’s racist past.

Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, was loved by business elites and birthed South Africa’s now-thriving black middle class (including the students who fronted #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall in 2015 and 2016). Mbeki’s government, however, set records for the number of street protests against it over privatization, housing evictions, and, crucially, his unforgivable denialist response to South Africa’s HIV/AIDS crisis.

Zuma was a flawed figure from the start; ANC, trade union, and communist leaders such as Ronnie Kasrils (who served as a government minister under Mandela, Mbeki, and Zuma), had long questioned his leadership qualities, and Zuma had been implicated in widespread corruption and survived a rape trial (he was accused of raping the daughter of his former Robben Island prison cellmate). In 2005, Mbeki fired Zuma, the then-deputy president, over corruption charges. The anti-Mbeki forces, including most of the Left, coalesced around Zuma, claiming that he was the victim of a political conspiracy. It helped that Zuma came across as humble with the common touch, something the aloof Mbeki lacked. While hired mobs burned effigies of the woman he was accused of raping and chanted “burn the bitch,” the Left — including COSATU’s then-general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi — declared that Zuma would reverse neoliberalism in South Africa.

Three years later, Mbeki was forced to retire as the country’s president and in 2009, on the strength of an improved ANC showing at the polls, Zuma was elected South Africa’s president. If the poor expected respite from the global recession or the negative effects of neoliberal policies from Zuma, what they got instead was increased repression and state violence, politicization of key state institutions (to settle political disputes within the ANC), widespread incompetence (for example, temporary chaos in making welfare payments), and extensive political-influence peddling.

South Africans again spoke of “state capture” — a relationship between the state and outside interests (usually capitalists), in which private interests take control of key elements of the state and are able to directly influence, guide, and shape policy. State capture dates back to the colonial and apartheid eras — when white regimes and white business colluded to facilitate the super-exploitation of the black majority — but in its postapartheid version, the Guptas, an Indian business clan close to Zuma, were able to hire and fire ministers, guide state appropriation policy, and even change official affirmative action policy to include them as naturalized black South Africans.

Yet perhaps what Zuma will be remembered for most is the Marikana massacre. In August 2012, police gunned down, in broad daylight, thirty-four miners in the northwest city. The ANC government and their allies in COSATU and the SACP claimed that the murdered workers were “criminals” who, aided by potions, charged the police in a suicidal frenzy and thus deserved to die. Evidence later emerged that ANC politicians (including Ramaphosa) had pressured the police to intervene in the strike and that the massacre was not a tragic accident, but a premeditated act. As a member of the mine’s board, Ramaphosa sent an email saying the strike was “dastardly criminal and must be characterized as such.” His conclusion: “there needs to be concomitant action to address this situation.”

Zuma later established a public commission of inquiry into Marikana, but it turned out to be a paper tiger. No one was charged, and none of his ministers — not even the police commissioner — resigned. No one paid any political price for the massacre. This was to be expected: the postapartheid epoch has largely has largely meant violence, exclusion, and degradation for South Africa’s black poor.

As the ANC took over the South African state, in a country where economic opportunities up to then had been closed off to black South Africans, the ANC became not just a political party, but a way to earn a decent salary. Competition for political office in the ANC, especially at the local level, increasingly became the be-all and end-all, because it meant access to lucrative state contracts and accumulating wealth. Higher up in the party, access to the state through the ANC became the way to get rich quick.

It also bred a new class of politicians who acted like old-style warlords. Violence became inseparable from politics, especially in Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal. Between January 2016 and mid-September 2017, at least thirty-five people were murdered in political violence related to ANC rivalries there. The ANC itself counted eighty of its political representatives killed between 2011 and 2017. At one men’s hostel in Durban, the largest city in the province, eighty-nine people were murdered between March 2014 and July 2017 in acts of political violence. Almost no arrests have been made.

Zuma’s departure signals the end of outright looting in the South Africa state. It is no coincidence that the same day Zuma resigned, police raided the Guptas’ house in a rich suburb of Johannesburg. Ramaphosa’s election hopefully means an end to the parasitic corruption that has turned many state-owned companies into heavily indebted, barely functional enterprises.

Zuma’s regime was rife with instability. He regularly hired and fired ministers (he averaged one finance minister per year) and kept on ministers who caused harm and despair. He governed in a highly personalized manner, simultaneously speaking about his reign as if he was an outside observer and using his power to hollow out or capture any part of the state that might threaten his interests or those of his vast family, or of the Guptas. Everyone was expendable to Zuma; his closest allies in his journey to the presidency — such as Blade Nzimande, former general secretary of the Communist Party, and, crucially, Julius Malema, former ANC Youth League firebrand — would also become Zuma’s greatest enemies.

By the end of his presidency, few South Africans cared that Zuma was a liberation hero, that he’d served a decade at Robben Island prison, or that he was key to ending violence between the ANC and a Zulu nationalist grouping that acted as apartheid’s proxy in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Zuma will be remembered as someone who brought down a 105-year-old liberation movement and broke the South African left.

Zuma was able to hijack the Left’s critique of South Africa’s racial and class inequalities to advance his own parasitic political project, rising to power through the Left. For the majority of Zuma’s presidency, the Left defended his every outrage. At various points they declared that Zuma would initiate a “Lula moment” in his second term or that all criticism of Zuma was the product of imperialist conspiracies against BRICS. Zuma was meant to be the left leader the country needed. Instead, he showed the pitfalls of a politics that desperately seeks a messianic leader to free the country from its malaise.


At last December’s ANC’s national elective conference, Zuma tried to stop Ramaphosa, then his party deputy, from succeeding him. Zuma favored his ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a former foreign minister and, more recently, head of the African Union. Though Zuma’s faction ended up with half of the top six positions in the party, he could not halt Ramaphosa’s election as ANC president. When the result was announced, Zuma appeared shocked; the life seemed to drained from his tired face.

The ANC was left with a conundrum. Elections were only scheduled for mid-2019, and Zuma was bleeding votes (in local elections in 2013, largely because of Zuma’s performance, the ANC lost the metros of Johannesburg, Pretoria, and Port Elizabeth to the liberal Democratic Alliance). To hasten his departure, they pulled an old trick: when Zuma engineered a putsch against Mbeki in 2007, his backers claimed that having two different people as ANC president and president of the country resulted in “two centers of powers.” They forced Mbeki to resign. Zuma was now in Mbeki’s position. But unlike Mbeki, who went quietly, Zuma seemed determined to finish out his term. The problem for Zuma was that Ramaphosa had been strategizing against him, turning even Zuma’s own allies against him and using them to damn Zuma publicly.

The strategizing worked. Ramaphosa is now president. He is being touted in editorial opinions, on social media, and in ANC propaganda as the anti-Zuma. He is educated, articulate, and smooth, able to comfortably move from the boardroom to the mass rally. He is a competent, stable politician, able to appeal to the same middle-class voters who deserted the ANC en masse because of Zuma. He is warm and reassuring, an excellent orator, a conciliator.

The bar may be low, but he’s clearing it easily.

A certain euphoria has accompanied Ramaphosa’s swift swearing in as the country’s president. Even those in social movements and human rights organizations who fought Zuma and the ANC government over education, housing, and health services, are either willing to give him a chance or openly cheering on his presidency. The mood seems to almost mirror the fuzzy Rainbow Nation hubris of the mid to late 1990s, with references to the fact that “we are all in this together.”

While Ramaphosa is certainly preferable to Zuma, and if he accomplishes his stated goals of stabilizing the economy, purging the state of its parasitic elements, and restoring broken institutions to operational readiness it will be to the benefit of all South Africa, that does not mean the Left should give him a pass.

Ramaphosa once led South Africa’s then-largest union, the National Union of Mineworkers through the most violent and politically chaotic period in South Africa’s history, facing off against a murderous, racist government. But he traded all the political capital he earned from the workers’ struggle for actual capital — Ramaphosa now has a personal fortune estimated at over $450 million.

His defenders trot out the old line that because he is rich already, he can’t be bought, but the examples of Donald Trump, Silvio Berlusconi, Mauricio Macri, and many others show this is sort of logic is fantasy. Even his rise to immense wealth wasn’t so much due to his abilities as a businessman, but rather because the ANC “deployed” him to the private sector and South Africa’s white captains of industry decided he was a man with whom they could do business. As a result he was catapulted into the boardrooms of mega-corporations like McDonald’s and Coca-Cola. While Ramaphosa might not introduce the same sort of parasitic approach to governance as Zuma, he is unlikely to prove a friend to workers and the poor.

Ramaphosa’s calling card is his anti-corruption agenda. Many South Africans, disgusted by Zuma’s open corruption and the assembly line of stooges he brought into government, have been swayed by Ramaphosa’s anti-corruption promises. In his State of the Nation address, Ramaphosa promised to fire the corrupt and incompetent Zuma lackeys and establish commissions investigating state capture.

South Africans are also looking to him improve the economy. In his speech, Ramaphosa put forward such textbook neoliberal measures as special economic zones and public-private partnerships. This may be all “to restore confidence and prevent an investment downgrade” by ratings agencies, common under Zuma. But he is also aware of his base. Ramaphosa promised to “expropriate land without compensation” for agriculture, impose a national minimum wage, and introduce free higher education for those whose families make less than R350,000 a year.

We can expect that Ramaphosa will be seen as a reliable partner by global capital, and there will be some uptick in foreign direct investment — but not enough to create the sort of jobs South Africans badly need. For all his smoothness, neither Ramaphosa nor any of the opposition parties have a economic vision that can deliver healthy growth rates, reduce unemployment, and tackle horrific structural inequality.

What Ramaphosa represents at one level is a return to the classic ANC model of social compact, putting forward a collective vision that favors developmental capitalism, collective aspiration, social harmony — but by and for elites, at the expense of workers. Indeed, while COSATU and the SACP supported Ramaphosa’s campaign, Zuma broke the back of these once proud organizations and Ramaphosa will most likely be able to pass pro-business policy without facing any real opposition from the Left.

Perhaps the biggest losers in Ramaphosa’s rise to power will be South Africa’s opposition parties, both the center-right Democratic Alliance (DA) and to a lesser extent, the populist-nationalist EFF. Both centered their political strategy over the last few years on removing Zuma and rooting out corruption. With Zuma gone and a slick operator like Ramaphosa in power, the opposition will have to radically reconfigure its political strategy.

The DA doesn’t offer a dramatically different policy vision from the ANC; much of their appeal has been based on their supposed claim to be better managers of the state and more competent administrators of the same policies as the ANC. But with the party’s bungling of Cape Town’s historic water crisis, combined with the widespread infighting and the superficial, TED talk style of their national leader Mmusi Maimane, the DA will potentially lose most of their new voters to Ramaphosa’s slick new ANC. The EFF might be better placed to hold their ground, since they actually have a dramatically different political platform than the ANC and are prepared to bring up the new president’s darker past (in particular, Marikana.) Outside the ANC, the EFF perhaps, along with the country’s media, deserve most of the credit for swaying public opinion against Zuma.

One common narrative is that “this is the beginning of ANC renewal.” That the ANC is reformed. That the Guptas are getting arrested and that Zuma allies in the ANC seem nervous and disoriented (and seemingly under threat of arrest). But this is an old narrative, one that simply buys the ANC time and allows it to win the next election. Meanwhile, the ANC will continue to make excuses and promises. The last decade or so has damaged the ANC internally, and the party is still in the same mess it was under Zuma. Many of Zuma’s cronies and abetters can be found in the party, offering nothing in the way of introspection or contrition. And the ANC doesn’t offer a new vision for the country.

Part of the appeal of the renewal narrative is the pathetic state of South Africa’s opposition parties and the rapid decline of the Left. Without a credible opposition either in parliament or on the streets, in the form of a strong, independent trade union movement, the ANC once again appears to many as the only game in town, and Ramaphosa, the main player.

And Ramaphosa’s political prospects seem rosy. He will probably win next year’s election and recover many of the votes lost by Zuma. But South Africa’s economic and social problems will prove a tougher challenge.