It comes as no huge surprise that many of the South Africans who welcomed Jacob Zuma’s departure from the presidency last week are sceptical about the prospects of a meaningful transformation under his successor. The optimists, meanwhile, expect that as one of South Africa’s richer businessmen, Cyril Ramaphosa is much less likely to be lured towards corrupt practices.
That may well be the case. But various other considerations must also be taken into account. For one, Zuma wasn’t alone. The temptation of easy enrichment also beguiled many other stalwarts of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), whose trajectory has in some ways reflected the path of so many other liberation movements. All too often the militancy exhibited during the struggle for freedom makes way for the mundane exigencies of power.
The ANC in fact caved in to the demands of international capitalism even before it was permitted into the portals of power in Pretoria. There were arguably benign aspects to this historic compromise; it enabled a relatively smooth and bloodless transition to ostensible majority rule. But it also helps to explain why almost a quarter-century after the dramatic transition, charges of continuing socioeconomic apartheid still resonate.
Nelson Mandela was no doubt complicit in the compromise, perhaps because the alternative seemed too fraught. In his Rainbow Nation, the pot of gold was destined to be reserved for a tiny elite. The latter would no longer be all white, though — the exclusive fraternity was willing, for the sake of appearances, to accept an infusion of colour. Ramaphosa, who switched to the business side after a stint as a union leader, is a shining example of that tendency.
But all too many of the basic structures of racial inequality effectively remained intact. Zuma stirred a little hope of redressing some of the perennial grievances when he took over from Mandela’s successor, the somewhat aloof and professorial Thabo Mbeki, the son of Mandela’s comrade and fellow long-term political prisoner Govan Mbeki, who was among the ANC representatives at the talks in Britain where the shape of post-apartheid Africa was thrashed out.
Some of Zuma’s character flaws were already arousing suspicions by then. He had been acquitted of a rape charge, but not everyone found the verdict convincing. It wasn’t his four wives and 20-something kids that stirred up public anger, though. It was more the fact that two of his offspring had lucrative jobs with an expanding concern that thrived on government contracts.
The Gupta brothers had not emerged from a South African family. They had established themselves in the country just before the end of formal apartheid, and acquired influence within the ANC by exploiting the corruptibility of some of its rising stars. Zuma turned out to be a particularly useful pick. But subtlety was not his strong point, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the Guptas see him not just as indispensable in their rise but also as the unwitting architect of their doom. Police raided the family compound just hours before Zuma finally resigned, and at least one of the brothers is wanted for questioning.
Zuma grossly overstepped the mark in other respects, too — not least by requisitioning state funds to fortify his personal country estate. This occurred even as the British PR firm Bell Pottinger was surreptitiously aiding him, at the behest of the Guptas, to fan the flames of racial disharmony. The idea of holding “white monopoly capital” accountable for South Africans’ economic woes is not hard to insinuate because it’s not altogether untrue. Redressal of longstanding injustices, such as much of South African land remaining in white hands post-apartheid, is more complicated, though — and Zuma seemed bent on focusing on his personal grievances.
Ramaphosa, who was expected this week to reshape the Cabinet that Zuma bequeathed, gives every impression of abiding by the neoliberal mantra of privileging economic growth over redistribution, which all too often is merely an excuse for pursuing the maximisation of profits, the dregs from which are then supposed to trickle down to the underdogs. It doesn’t often work that way — but even when it does, crumbs from the rich man’s table hardly add up to economic justice.
South Africa’s struggle for liberation was internationally inspiring. Its aftermath was calculatedly co-opted by some of those who had spent decades decrying the ANC as a terrorist outfit and intermittently demanding the execution of Mandela and his comrades. We’ll never quite know whether a more decisive break with the past would have worked out better. In power, the ANC has disappointed not just many veterans of the struggle but, more crucially, the post-apartheid generation. It is expected to struggle for a majority in next year’s elections, and it remains to be seen whether the switch from Zuma to Ramaphosa will make a huge difference....