South Africa’s era of being ruled over by an African Strongman, almost a traditional chief, is over and a new era of modern leadership has started.
It may sound obvious, but it’s a big thing, a fundamental shift that I believe historians will one day write a special chapter on.
There was a telling incident, small but symbolically significant, on Saturday when the new ANC president, Cyril Ramaphosa, insisted that the ANC rally start exactly on time and strongly stressed that it was the way of the future. President Jacob Zuma arrived some forty minutes later with a phalanx of bodyguards.
Did we, with our history and demographics, perhaps have to go through a Zuma period before we could cross a kind of Rubicon and become the country we’re ready to be?
It’s going to be a big adjustment. For nearly a decade we were used to a singing, dancing head of state, a man with a huge family not averse to wearing the traditional dress of leopard skins; a patriarch who sat on a throne like a king, dishing out and receiving favours and gifts; a much feared figure who showed off his power like a bodybuilder flexing his muscles.
The contrast between Zuma and Ramaphosa are as stark as the contrast between Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
Zuma is a wily, ruthless street fighter wielding a machete, Ramaphosa a fine, calculated strategist who prefers a scalpel.
Ramamphosa is an educated, sophisticated urbanite and citizen of the world; a thinker, a constitutionalist, someone who really understands the economy and international affairs.
To him, cheap populism is as offensive as cheap whiskey.
What is more, Ramaphosa is democratic South Africa’s first president not coming from the ranks of the ANC in exile or the Mandela-era Robben Islanders. His early political activism was interwined with the trade unions and the UDF with its pluralistic tradition. His student activist roots were in the Black People’s Convention.
Thabo Mbeki was, of course, also an urban intellectual, but he was a detached figure in the shadow of Nelson Mandela and his legacy has been eclipsed totally by the Zuma era.
Ramaphosa is clearly very aware that many South Africans will be wary of his new style. That was why his first action as party leader was to visit traditional chiefs and why he speaks almost all the indigenous languages at every possible occasion.
He needs to at the same reassure traditionally-minded citizens and seduce them into walking the modernising road with him. He is the party’s only hope to win next year’s general election.
Ramaphosa didn’t speak only as ANC president on Saturday, he spoke as the incoming president of the country.
He did not only spell out his vision for his party, but for the country: the economy, land reform, corruption and state capture, tertiary education, the problems with the criminal justice system and state-owned enterprises.
His theme was change and rejuvenation and virtually every second sentence was a damning judgment of the Zuma era, without being too obvious about it. (He used the word “decorum” in every interview he gave since his election.)
Many South Africans feel Ramaphosa should have forced Zuma’s resignation by now, but he clearly knows that a Zuma exit should be negotiated meticulously to minimise the fall-out. It’s a delicate issue, he said in his Sunday interviews, stressing that Zuma’s departure should not amount to a humiliation.
Ramaphosa will represent his country at the weekend’s World Economic Forum as its de facto leader.
It is hard to imagine that he will allow Zuma to present the State of the Nation Address in a month’s time.
Ramaphosa’s remarks on the need for new leadership at the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) are significant and an indication that he plans to force criminal investigations on Zuma and his state capture friends.
It is not a coincidence that after all these years, the Asset Forfeiture Unit has suddenly moved on the Guptas, the NPA has served a preservation order on Trillian and McKinsey and the Hawks have reportedly asked for an arrest warrant for one or more of the Gupta brothers.
Even Zuma’s staunchest supporters now know that the pending commission of inquiry into state capture will be limited to the public protector’s report and that the evidence against Zuma is likely to be overwhelming.
Having said all this, I would advise against over-optimism that Ramaphosa will “fix” South Africa quickly.
The ANC is still a fractured movement and its culture of entitlement, corruption and nepotism that built up over years is still largely in place.
Ramaphosa’s challenge is not only to take his party in one piece with him on his road to modernisation and constitutionalism, but to fundamentally transform, inspire and control the under-performing civil service and the weak provincial and loal governments.
Only then, and only if a semblance of economic growth can be achieved, will Ramaphosa have a chance to achieve the radical economic transformation through inclusive growth that his “New Deal” envisages.
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