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Ramaphosa has chosen a path of patience and limiting risks. But is it working?

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South African president Cyril Ramaphosa’s testimony before a commission investigating state capture and corruption under his predecessor highlights the extent to which his presidency is mired in the mess left by former president Jacob Zuma.

Corruption and abuse of state organs became so widespread on Zuma’s watch that it has become equated to the capture of the state.

During his presidential term since February 2018, Ramaphosa’s main challenge has been to unwind and dislodge the Zuma legacy.

This legacy also includes a polarised governing party, the African National Congress (ANC), which he leads. The party is divided by factional contestations following three national conferences starting in 2007, an economy in decline since 2009 and the ANC’s electoral decline since 2006. State institutions and capacity are locked in a downward spiral.

When he became president, Ramaphosa responded to these challenges by calling for a “new dawn”, especially in economic terms. Before 2007 the country’s GDP growth rate was about 5%. After the 2008 economic crisis, and at the start of the Zuma years, it declined to 3% and to 1% by 2015.

Recessions and sovereign credit downgradings followed. In response, Ramaphosa concentrated on public infrastructure as a catalyst for foreign direct investments and growth. Social compacts between the private and public sectors and master plans for particular sectors, such as sugar, poultry, steel and the automotive industry, became the means for moving away from a state-centred economic paradigm to a mixed one of private co-responsibility.

But the outbreak of COVID-19 delayed most of it.

Though already more than three years into his administration, it is not yet possible to reach final conclusions about Ramaphosa’s impact as a president. Unlike most politicians but typical of a negotiator, he has not put his plans on the table for public scrutiny.

A difficult task

The period for which Ramaphosa will find it difficult to account was his term as deputy president to Zuma. The reason is that he deputised at the height of the state capture era – corruption and the re-purposing of state organs for private gain. Though no claim is made that he benefited from it, he should have been aware of the media exposés.

He saw how the Save South Africa campaign against state capture developed into a public groundswell, and he was part of the parliamentary caucus which did not support no-confidence motions against President Zuma.

Read more: Precarious power tilts towards Ramaphosa in battle inside South Africa’s governing party

Ramaphosa appeared on the Zuma “slate” at the 2012 ANC National Conference as deputy presidential candidate against other party stalwarts Mathews Phosa and Tokyo Sexwale. He succeeded Kgalema Motlanthe, who, as Zuma’s deputy in the first term, is in an equally awkward position to explain his role.

If the Zondo Commission into allegations of state capture is to engage in frank talk, Ramaphosa will have to explain why he and so many others in the ANC did not publicly challenge the state capture practices.

Managing COVID-19

Ramaphosa’s agenda has been radically changed by the COVID-19 pandemic, for which no world leader can claim to have prepared. His economic “new dawn” had to be converted into a reconstruction and recovery plan.

His first term will, therefore, be remembered as a period of crisis management.

While the COVID-19 crisis is ostensibly a health one, the lockdown regulations transformed it into an economic crisis and a public credibility headache. Ramaphosa’s leadership in terms of unequivocal and consistent messages to the public was a source of confidence for many. The national leaders of other nations were much more inconsistent with their messages.

But the president could not resolve two complex matters. The first is that his government opted for a formal state of disaster with very strict lockdown regulations, following the example of most other states. The dilemma he could not address was that such a lockdown was only sustainable if the government had the financial means for temporary relief measures. Otherwise, the economy would be harmed.

He also could not resolve differences in approach between him and cabinet ministers, who implemented the regulations in an illogical and draconian manner. The public and opposition parties now blame him for the lockdown’s negative impact.

Read more: South Africans hold contradictory views about their democracy

Ramaphosa can claim credit for a more assertive Africa policy, especially as chairperson of the African Union. He took the lead to develop a multilateral, continental COVID-19 response plan which ameliorated the narrow, nationalist politics of many states.

An indirect approach

Ramaphosa is judged by many as weak in dealing with the ANC’s divisions and his political opponents. This is a direct result of the fact that he won the leadership of the governing party with a slender majority in 2017. The existence of an equally strong faction opposed to him, and aligned to Zuma, made his position in the party precarious, and limited his options. He could not take the bold actions needed to tackle poor governance, combat corruption and fix the ailing economy.

His approach in the last three years can be summarised as an indirect one which limits his risks and requires patience and tactical moves. But these are not always clear to the public. This means that the test of its success will only be in the eventual outcome.