Is a South African renaissance in the making?

President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Leon Sadiki, City Press)
President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Leon Sadiki, City Press)

Joseph Ingram

Our annual visit to the grand kids in Cape Town seems different this year than it has been in the recent past. South Africa actually appears to be turning over a new leaf with the opening of the trial on corruption charges of its former president, Jacob Zuma.

Following what most observers would consider 10 years of policy misdirection, gross mismanagement and state capture by the Zuma family and its cronies – including the Gupta brothers (no! not the Koch brothers, but you get the idea) – the new administration led by former ANC deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, seems determined to set the country on the path envisioned by Nelson Mandela and the true heroes of the anti-apartheid movement.

Zuma's ANC, with its populist rhetoric of black empowerment, anti-intellectualism and cleaning the so-called swamp of the Mbeki (Zuma's predecessor as president) elites that backed the party until the Zuma faction took over, had effectively crippled the economic and social foundations that could have been the source of a more robust and inclusive development in South Africa. 

It has slowed economic growth to a standstill, deterred private investment, allowed unemployment to increase to almost 28 percent (with youth unemployment at over 40 percent), underfunded the education sector, produced a depreciating currency, and according to the World Bank's recently released report on global inequality, created the most unequal society on the planet.

And yet the 'one-per-centers' represented by Zuma and his cronies, in and out of government, have done very well at everyone else's expense.

Newly appointed President Cyril Ramaphosa, seems determined to reverse this decline and has initiated a draining of the real swamp. And he seems to be making a good start at doing so – an interesting contrast to his counterpart in Washington's White House.

Ramaphosa has begun by appointing experienced, competent professionals to the key ministerial portfolios of finance, and of state enterprises.

He has fired and indicted the CEOs of several key state-owned companies for mismanagement and corruption.

Ramaphosa has reset the government's energy policies by re-embarking on a path of renewable energy, annulling the Zuma government's honeymoon with President Vladimir Putin and the purchase of Russian nuclear technology.

After announcing at this year's World Economic Forum in Davos in January that South Africa is again open for foreign investment, Ramaphosa has sought to reassure investors that a fairer distribution of land will be done in accordance with the Constitution. No redistribution without compensation (or that would undermine economic performance), nor as US President Donald Trump has threatened to do in the case of the US border wall with Mexico, by invoking the use of "eminent domaine".

Leading by example to both his ministers and to the general public, since taking office he has travelled in economy class on government business, at times accompanied by senior government ministers, and jogged along Cape Town's board walk without the regal-like retinue of guards and vehicles that accompanied his predecessor. Again, a stark contrast to the recurring reports of the flagrant spending habits of Trump's cabinet appointees, and the sumptuous lifestyle and questionable business ethics of the president and his family.

While for South Africa it is far too early to see the results of a new set of economic policies based more on global best-practice rather than state-capture or rigid ideology, one feels a sense of hope and cautious optimism that things will indeed get better economically and socially. This is reflected in the recent strengthening of the South African rand, a more positive assessment by global ratings agencies, and an increase in the projected growth in GDP for 2018 to 2 percent plus. And yes, South Africa's outstanding performance at this year's Commonwealth Games is also a symbol that offers hope for South Africans and for the rest of Africa.

But perhaps most striking to me as a Canadian is the image of a new South African leadership, buttressed by a world class constitution, seeking to set high standards of democratic governance for itself and for the continent, while Canada's neighbour to the south – historically the self-described gold standard for democratic "exceptionalism" – is going through the throes of tawdry sexual scandals, payoffs to porn stars, alleged corruption at the highest levels of government, and widening gaps in income and social cohesion amongst Americans. 

Perhaps it really is time for a meaningful reset in our foreign and trade policies – with less reliance on US leadership and the development of new markets and alliances in Asia, Europe and yes, in Africa.

- Joseph Ingram is co-chair of Capitalis Partners, former president of the North-South Institute and a former special representative of the World Bank to the United Nations and the World Trade Organization.

* This article first appeared on iPolitics.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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