The South African Turnover: Anticorruption or Political Consolidation?

Last February, South African President Jacob Zuma—who has been dogged for years by credible allegations of corruption and other serious malfeasance in office—finally resigned under pressure.  In April, only a couple of months later, Zuma went on trial; he faces 16 counts of corruption, fraud, money laundering, and racketeering related to arms deals that took place in the 1990s (before his election as president). Zuma fought these charges for years, but now it seems as if his political cover has run out.

Yet the story behind Zuma’s corruption trial may go deeper than Zuma’s past bad behavior finally catching up with him. It’s important also to note the political context. Zuma’s resignation came at the urging of his party, the African National Congress (ANC), after Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa secured the leadership of the ANC in December 2017, igniting a power struggle that led to a planned vote of no confidence, brokered by Ramaphosa. Zuma resigned in order to avoid a vote he was likely to lose, and Deputy President Ramaphosa immediately took over. In his first few months in office, Ramaphosa has been shaking up the political establishment, but is himself also the subject of multiple corruption allegations. This leads one to question: Should the retrial of Zuma be understood principally as part of Ramaphosa strategy for political consolidation? More generally, has South Africa’s recent political shakeup set the country on a course for a better, less corrupt future?

Many have expressed precisely this hope, but I’m more pessimistic. True, President Ramaphosa has acknowledged South Africa’s serious corruption problem and pledged to address it, and that is in some ways welcome news. But Ramaphosa is not an immaculate outsider with the capacity to reform from a position of moral authority. He is a deep insider, enmeshed in the corrupt system he has pledged to reform. He has profited heavily from the relationship between the ANC and the wealthy (mostly white) elites, and his rise to power came not from a landslide toward a new party, but from a successful destabilization of the ANC from within. Moreover, while Ramaphosa’s government is cracking down on corruption, its investigations seem carefully and narrowly targeted, focusing mainly on those who might be a political threat or rival. Therefore, I worry that Ramaphosa may prove to be equally corrupt, and the latest string of crackdowns may be nothing more than a way of securing his position as leader of South Africa for the many years to come.

When evaluating the current political transition in South Africa, it is important to be attentive to history. In the early 1990s, the ANC and its then-leader Nelson Mandela managed a peaceful transition to post-apartheid rule by guaranteeing that economic control and a majority of the country’s natural resources would remain in the hands of a small set of white wealthy South Africans. (The chief negotiator of the deal between Mandela and the elites was none other than Cyril Ramaphosa.) Within this framework, many ANC leaders amassed considerable wealth by leveraging the relationship between the black government and these wealthy white landowners and business tycoons. This often-corrupt relationship between the (new) political elite and the (old) economic elite is not the consequence of post-apartheid destabilization, but rather the baton of elite dominance passed forward. Jacob Zuma and the ANC benefited heavily from the post-apartheid political and economic structuring – but so did Ramaphosa, perhaps even more so. In 2015, Forbes listed Ramaphosa as one of the 50 wealthiest South Africans, with a net worth of $450 million. At the time, he was serving as Zuma’s deputy president, only recently having recused himself from his position as the head of a large conglomerate of mining companies, financial companies, and international chain South Africa subsidiaries.

Since his ascension in February, Ramaphosa has proved a controversial figure. Within his first week in office, Ramaphosa began to promise the uncompensated expropriation of white landowners. Ramaphosa chose as deputy president David Mabuza, who is mired in a variety of corruption scandals, but also was responsible for Ramaphosa’s victory in the December ANC elections.  To be sure, Ramaphosa’s government has taken strong anticorruption steps—but very targeted ones. In April 2018, law enforcement officials raided the compound of the Guptas, a wealthy landowning family with close ties to Zuma, and seized $21 million in assets in connection to a corrupt state-owned dairy farm. Shortly thereafter, prosecutors targeted Ace Magashule, secretary general of the ANC, and Mosebenzi Zwane, Zuma’s minister of mineral resources, for their role in the same scandal.  Both are members of the National Executive Committee of the ANC, and therefore potential political threats to Ramaphosa. Meanwhile, Zuma’s Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba, found guilty of perjury in February, was appointed as Home Affairs minister later that same month.

I don’t want to be too negative. Despite the apparent political selectivity of corruption prosecution, it’s at least arguable that selective enforcement is better than no enforcement, and that in time the current government’s anticorruption efforts will develop in ways that seem more politically neutral. And while Ramaphosa is a deep insider of a corrupt system, which should naturally make observers suspicious of his bona fides, this does not automatically imply that he is not serious about fighting corruption now, whatever he might have done in the past. After all, as Travis discussed in a prior post, sometimes even (formerly) corrupt leaders can champion meaningful anticorruption reforms. Yet Ramaphosa’s history, and what we’ve seen from his administration so far, give rise to significant concerns and justify a healthy skepticism toward claims that the South African government, under new leadership, has turned over a new leaf when it comes to taking high-level corruption seriously.

The next few months may provide some additional clues as to the direction the new administration will take on these issues. In its March resolution, the ANC under Ramaphosa’s leadership resolved to take strong anticorruption steps like suspension for those under investigation. But whether these will actually be implemented—seriously and evenhandedly—remains to be seen. Perhaps more importantly, we should watch for how the administration deals with corruption allegations against Ramaphosa’s political allies, especially members of his cabinet. Should Gigaba, Mabuza, and other cabinet members appointed by Ramaphosa face the same investigative rigor as his political opponents, then this may be a sign that the Ramaphosa Administration, is indeed taking corruption more seriously, rather than simply deploying corruption investigations strategically in order to consolidate power.

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