The African National Congress (ANC) has a new leader. The question is whether Cyril Ramaphosa is the next President of South Africa. In other words, will Ramaphosa lead the ANC to victory in the national election in 2019, and will the ANC recoup the electoral losses it suffered in the last two elections?
Whether it can is contingent on the quality of leadership Ramaphosa will provide and the state of the ruling past after last year’s fifty-fourth national conference, at which he succeeded Jacob Zuma as the landlord of Luthuli House. To the extent that unity was the dominant theme in the lead-up to the national conference, is Ramaphosa equal to the task of uniting the ANC behind his leadership and is he going to succeed in recreating this factionalised organism in his image? Put differently, how much of Zuma’s ANC will be in the belly of Ramaphosa’s ANC? Are the digestive juices in the belly of Ramaphosa’s ANC strong enough to dissolve Zuma’s ANC?
In short, the manner in which the ANC, under the leadership of Ramaphosa, responds to its internal challenges will determine whether the ANC, if it does not lose power in 2019, succeeds in tackling national strategic challenges such as building popular confidence in the democratic State, enhancing State capacity, reinstating the credibility and integrity of State institutions, reversing the political culture of corruption and rent-seeking, as well as creating the conditions and a climate for economic growth. Without strategic, astute and decisive leadership, coupled with the capacity to be embedded and autonomous, the best we should expect is either partial success or complete failure.
If the outcome of the leadership elections at the Nasrec conference is anything to go by, Ramaphosa is heading for stormy seas. First, he has a problem ANC leaders have had since 1997. Thabo Mbeki had as his deputy Zuma, a man he did not want to succeed him as ANC president. Similarly, the 2012 conference of the ANC elected Ramaphosa as the deputy president of the party. The Zuma faction spent the next five years trying to prevent him from becoming ANC president in 2017. Now, Ramaphosa is saddled with David Mabuza, a man he definitely did not want as his deputy. In addition, Ace Makashule and Jessie Duarte, members of the Zuma faction, are secretary-general and deputy secretary-general of the party respectively.
This, together with the fact that the Zuma faction has significant representation on the National Executive Committee (NEC) means that, to some degree, Ramaphosa cannot rule without the consent of his political opponents. This balance in the leadership of the party may impose constraints on his capacity to lead the ANC when it comes to making tough decisions, especially those demanded by economic actors outside the ANC. Also, this may come with some level of policy dilution and incoherence which, in turn, may cause even more policy uncertainty at a time when the ANC and its government should be working towards boosting the confidence of international and domestic investors, the markets and ratings agencies.
However, Ramaphosa’s main challenge is to help the ANC reconnect with supporters who have abandoned the ruling party in recent elections and boost confidence among voters in general. In other words, Ramaphosa must decide who he must appease the most between his opponents within the party, the electorate and external constituencies such as the markets, capital and ratings agencies. Depending on where he puts his emphasis, he runs the risk of alienating voters in an attempt to appease internal ANC constituencies when it comes to issues such as the removal of Zuma as President of the country.
On the other hand, attempts to recall Zuma may divide the party and compromise his power and influence. If, on the other hand, he adopts a populist rhetoric and measures to placate his opponents inside the party, he risks losing the support of key economic actors in the global and domestic economies. But one of the things he must guard against the most is the emergence of multiple centres of power within the leadership of the party. If he is not vigilant, the presidency of the ANC may constitute one centre of power, while the Mabuza-Paul Mashatile nexus evolves into another. This, coupled with centres of power, economic and political, that are located outside the leadership of the party contesting power and influence in the State and the ANC may weaken Ramaphosa’s leadership if he reduces himself to a mere instrument of one centre of power or another.
To obviate these risks, Ramaphosa must work towards the creation of a new majority in both the party as a whole and the leadership of the party. This will happen only if he displays moral and political courage.