South Africa: Cyril Ramaphosa elected new ANC leader

Cyril Ramaphosa has been elected as the new party leader of the African National Congress following a fiercely contested election.

Cyril Ramaphosa has been elected president of the African National Congress (ANC), positioning the millionaire businessman as the probable next leader of South Africa as the party prepares for a crucial general election in 2019.  

The veteran politician and former trade unionist overcame rival Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in a tense vote at the party’s elective congress in Johannesburg after a bitter contest marked by deepening factionalism within the ruling party, which is struggling to remain united after over two decades in power. Ramaphosa won 2,440 delegate votes, while Dlamini-Zuma received 2,261 votes.

Mining magnate Ramaphosa, a veteran of the ANC who was once seen as Nelson’s Mandela’s heir apparent, campaigned as an economic reformer intent on salvaging the country’s battered reputation with the business community. Investors have turned away from South Africa in their droves under the presidency of Jacob Zuma, who has fired successive finance ministers and overseen an extended period of sluggish growth, high unemployment and repeated credit downgrades amid political scandals.  

Ramaphosa’s reformist campaign included promises to ‘wash’ the ANC following a raft of state capture allegations – many relating to the influence of the controversial Gupta family – which have embroiled Zuma and his inner circle. By contrast, opponent Nkosazana-Dlamini Zuma, Jacob Zuma’s former wife and pick for president, was seen by many as a continuity candidate keen to uphold the policies and party structures of the incumbent. 

The former home affairs minister’s attempt to forge her own identity by promising radical economic empowerment – a vaguely defined programme to overcome the country’s entrenched economic inequities – was ultimately not compelling enough to overcome Ramaphosa’s storied history in the ANC.

The 65-year old Sowetan served as the ANC’s chief negotiator during South Africa’s transition from apartheid, having developed a reputation as a tough but skilful negotiator during his stint as first general secretary of the powerful National Union of Mineworkers, an engine room of the anti-apartheid movement.   

Following the transition to democracy, Ramaphosa pursued a parallel career in business, earning a fortune through the Shanduka Group, which owns stakes in mining firms, financial groups and consumer businesses. He has held executive roles with many of South Africa’s best-known businesses, including Bidvest, Standard Bank, and MTN, controversially serving as a board member at mining firm Lonmin during the Marikana massacre of striking workers by police in 2012. 

Despite his extensive business interests, Ramaphosa continued to climb through the ranks of the ANC. He has served as deputy president since 2014 but has since enjoyed a stormy relationship with Zuma, who analysts say has attempted to carefully stage-manage his succession by Dlamini-Zuma in order to evade potential corruption charges. Analysts will now focus on whether Ramaphosa is able to lead the country in a different direction to Zuma.

“It is far from clear that Mr. Ramaphosa has solutions to South Africa’s many structural problems,” says John Ashbourne, Africa economist at Capital Economics. “While investors welcomed him as the best option available, there is little sign that he is a convinced reformer. His campaign essentially promised to implement the ANC’s current policies more effectively. And, while he has frequently promised to renew the party, he has served as Mr. Zuma’s deputy since 2014.”

David Thomas

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