Guest Post: How President Ramaphosa Can Begin Rebuilding Public Trust in South African Government

Today’s guest post is from Larry Kirsch, an economist who is currently the Managing Partner of IMR Health Economics.

The South African government, like many governments around the world, faces daunting challenges due to the combination of the Covid-19 pandemic, economic collapse, and civil unrest. Addressing these problems requires not only decisive action by leaders, but also a sufficient reservoir of public trust. Without such trust, a leader’s call for civic sacrifice and solidarity may not receive the desired response. Unfortunately, South African citizens do not currently have much trust in their government. The leading international survey of trustworthiness, the Edelman Trust Barometer, reported this past January that trust in government among South Africans ranked lowest among the 28 countries surveyed—lower than Russia and Argentina and well below India and China.

Part of this lack of trust is due to chronically stressed economic conditions, as well as extreme structural inequalities. But citizens’ trust has been further undermined by South Africa’s endemic corruption. The corruption of former President Jacob Zuma and his closest cronies (especially the rapacious Gupta family) was well-documented in a a November 2016 report issued by the Office of the Public Protector, then headed by the highly-regarded Thuli Madonsela. That report, entitled The State of Capture, also emphasized the burden of corruption on everyday citizens, documenting, for example, how corruption had contributed to the dysfunctions in vital public services and state owned enterprises.

Will the relatively new government of President Cyril Ramaphosa be able to galvanize trust and obtain the degree of public support needed to deal with the grave threats facing South Africa? On the one hand, President Ramaphosa’s public statements, especially since the outbreak of the coronavirus in South Africa in early March, have been decisive, inclusive, and progressive, particularly in relation to the call for solidarity and the government’s commitment to the apportionment of healthcare, work, food, and other public support on the basis of need. But if President Ramaphosa truly wishes to begin a ”radical” restructuring process based on principles of fairness, social cohesion, and inclusive growth, he will have to deal squarely with the persistence of the culture of corruption, as well as with broader concerns about government openness and public accountability. And his stirring speeches have so far not included much information on how his administration intends to tackle these crucial issues.

One important element of a comprehensive strategy to rebuild the South African government’s integrity—and with it citizen trust in that government—would be for President Ramaphosa to personally back robust implementation of South Africa’s Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA). Continue reading

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.

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