Under the leadership of Cyril Ramaphosa, the African National Congress (ANC) improved its performance in the 2019 national elections. The ANC won about 58 percent of the vote, up from 54 percent in the local government elections of 2016, though still a decline from the 62 percent in won in 2014 national elections. It lost seats, but it seems to have, for now, arrested the Zuma-era decline.
By the beginning of 2018, the ANC had removed from office the scandal-plagued Jacob Zuma as ANC party leader and president. The party then elected Ramaphosa, who had orchestrated Zuma’s departure, as its leader and as South Africa’s president. He launched a reform program, “New Dawn,” that promised the renewal of the party, an emphasis on party unity, an end to corruption, and national economic policy designed to address the poverty of the black majority through accelerated economic growth. “New Dawn” was the ANC’s campaign theme in the national elections, though Ramaphosa faced push-back from the still powerful party forces aligned with Zuma.
In democratic South Africa, elections matter, and Ramaphosa’s success has consequences. It has led to a realignment within the party in Ramaphosa’s favor. A party instrument, the Integrity Commission (IC), is charged with vetting candidates on the ANC’s electoral lists as to their moral and overall suitability for office. Frequently criticized as “toothless,” nevertheless the IC has accused Deputy President David Mabuza and others associated with Zuma as having “prejudiced the integrity of the ANC.” Accordingly, Mabuza and others so accused have declined to be sworn-in as MP’s until they are able to answer the accusations.
Observers had expected that Ramaphosa would reappoint Mabuza as deputy president for the sake of party unity and also following the adage of “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” He could still do so—the president may appoint up to two ministers, including the deputy president, from outside parliament—though he is more likely to take the opportunity to appoint a different personality less compromised by allegations of corruption. One possibility is Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who narrowly lost a vote for party leader after Zuma, her ex-husband, was pushed out. While she is usually counted in the Zuma camp, she is a formidable politician in her own right, and the ANC emphasizes the importance of gender equality. For Ramaphosa, as deputy president she, too, would fit the adage of “keep your enemies closer.”
The bottom line of this political maneuvering is that Ramaphosa’s hand within the party has been strengthened by the election results, granting him greater freedom to pursue his agenda. We can expect him to continue to renew the ANC and begin to address South Africa’s social and economic problems that were exacerbated by the disastrous nine-year tenure of Jacob Zuma. The Zuma faction is still formidable, but for friends of South Africa, this is good news.