Investors, anti-corruption crusaders and a large segment of South Africans heaved a collective sigh of relief on Monday as Cyril Ramaphosa, the 65 year old businessman and deputy president, emerged as the new leader of the African National Congress (ANC) narrowly defeating his challenger and Zuma’s former wife Dlamini-Zuma by 2,440 votes to 2,261. Even the markets were euphoric. The rand gained as much as 4 percent – the most in two years – extending its gaining streak by another 0.2 percent on Tuesday. Likewise bond yields (both Rand and dollar denominated) continue to decline, up to 47 basis point as at Tuesday. They all could not wait to see the end of the scandal and corruption-riddled tenure of Jacob Zuma that has seen support for the ANC dwindled and has seen it lost municipal elections last year in key locations such as Johannesburg, the economic hub, Pretoria, the capital, and Port Elizabeth renamed Nelson Mandela Bay named after the ANC’s iconic leader and South Africa’s first post-apartheid president. Mr Zuma has repeatedly ignored calls to resign, and with the aid of his allies in the ANC and in parliament, have foiled all attempts to pass a vote of no confidence on him.
Mr Zuma has always been associated with corruption, cronyism and scandals. Yet, none of these was enough to stop his political ascendancy right up to the presidency. In 2004, Mr Zuma, as Vice President, was charged with corruption in connection with his financial advisor’s bribery case. While Shaik – his advisor – was promptly convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison, Zuma, with the aid of his lawyers, kept putting several obstacles on the way of successful prosecution of the case and succeeded in having the cases postponed. National prosecutor Mokotedi Mpshe in 2009 dropped the 783 charges against Zuma, paving the way for him to ascend to the presidency.
However, the courts, in April 2016, ruled that the charges should be reinstated – and after unsuccessfully challenging the ruling in court, Mr Zuma became desperate to install his former wife and mother of his four children as his successor possibly to shield him from prosecution. To make matters worse, Dlamini-Zuma’s major campaign theme was centred around ‘radical economic transformation’ – a call for redistribution of wealth to the black majority – a theme Mr Zuma returned to since his troubles with investors and the markets began, lending further credence to the perception that Dlamini-Zuma’s tenure will just be a continuation of Mr Zuma’s.
Meanwhile, Mr Ramaphosa, Zuma’s deputy, who had previously been silent on the corruption allegations against Zuma, began to speak up after the sacking of respected finance minister, Pravin Gordhan. He endeared himself to investors by promising market-friendly reforms and to curb corruption in government.
Investors and many South Africans will like to see Mr Zuma recalled early, say January next year, to allow for the reforms promised to begin. But given the results of the elections, that may be difficult. Mr Ramaphosa’s narrow win and the failure of his allies to secure three of the six top positions (which went to Zuma’s allies) may stymie or delay the move. Any move now will have to depend on those elected to the 86-member National Executive Committee of the party.
For the ANC, the election was an opportunity to reclaim its moral and political authority so badly eroded during Mr Zuma reign. Although it consistently sided with Mr Zuma and worked to scuttle the many votes of no confidence initiated by the opposition DA, it has shown by this election that it can cleanse itself and engineer change. It saw the hand-writing on the wall and acted to avoid a catastrophic defeat in the 2019 elections.