South Africa

South Africa

Op-Ed: Cyril Ramaphosa’s presidency – an opportunity for clean-up and new beginning

Op-Ed: Cyril Ramaphosa’s presidency – an opportunity for clean-up and new beginning

The election of Cyril Ramaphosa to the ANC presidency is a significant change in the political terrain. But it is insufficient to clear up the grime and violence surrounding the Zuma era, insofar as Zuma remains state president and his allies may present obstacles to the future elevation of Ramaphosa to the state presidency. It is important that all those who wish to bring the Zuma era and its legacies to an end should back Ramaphosa, to the extent that he is prepared to undertake a thorough clean-up. This may provide the opportunity to restore the hope that many cherished for a democratic South Africa with an ever-widening emancipatory scope. By RAYMOND SUTTNER. 

First published on? 

Different people relate to the election of Cyril Ramaphosa as ANC president in distinct ways, and this may relate to their political location. Obviously, those who campaigned for Ramaphosa had a mixture of reasons for supporting him, although generally being united in the desire to remove Jacob Zuma, “clean up” and restore economic stability. 

Those who supported Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma had a different orientation, being widely suspected to have wanted to continue with the Jacob Zuma pattern of governance, and also protect him personally, from potential legal consequences for his wrongdoing and avert any potential demand to return wrongfully acquired wealth. Those campaigning for her were closely associated with the Zuma period or other questionable aspects of the past or the present. 

It is true that the saying “Anyone but Zuma” (abbreviated as “ABZ” – a phrase popularised in 2012, when Kgalema Motlanthe challenged Zuma for the ANC presidency), remains valid for a wide range of people, who were not involved in campaigning for Ramaphosa’s election or did not campaign for anyone. How do we now relate to Ramaphosa’s election as ANC president and potential leadership of the country?  

Cyril Ramaphosa knows that he has not been elected as a messianic figure, expected to remedy all the ills of the Zuma period on his own. He will be part of a collective at the level of the ANC, (that may be divided in many respects). We, as South Africans, need to be clear on what we expect from a leader. Ramaphosa knows that he is not being given a blank cheque, but being called upon to turn the country around and away from the ignominy of the Zuma period. 

His election is a new fact in our political life. It is a significant change, just simply to remove Zuma from any position he holds. There is more to be done. Whatever the reservations some may bear, we cannot be so consumed by “revolutionary purity” that we ignore the change that Cyril Ramaphosa’s election represents, and what possibilities arise for enhancing its scope. What can be done, and what can we do wherever we are located, to enhance the scope and quality of that change, in a way that contributes to the enlargement of our freedom? What does it mean to act constructively and in the interests of our country and its democratic future, at this point in time and in relation to the election of Cyril Ramaphosa, whether or not we campaigned for his rise? 

What is a mature way of relating to the reality that Ramaphosa is now president of the ANC and faces obstacles to his quickly becoming president of the country, the most important of which is the incumbency of Zuma and the potential opposition to his removal before the completion of his term of office on the part of many of Zuma’s supporters? What do we do, in the event that Zuma is removed, but followed by extensive resistance from Zuma supporters, if Ramaphosa is elevated to the state presidency? What is to be done if Zuma supporters place obstacles in the way of governance? 

Why is it so important to remove Jacob Zuma as president of the country? 

Replacing Zuma with Ramaphosa can only be a meaningful goal if it entails a qualitative change in our lives, turning our back on everything that was entailed in the Zuma era? One can say “everything”, with some measure of certainty and without qualification because it will be hard to find aspects of this period that have had a beneficial effect on anyone apart from Zuma and his cronies. 

It is vital that we identify all that is entailed in any clean-up for there are many individuals and categories of people who have been damaged by this period. But there is always a risk that in prioritising the most urgent issues of the day, notably rescuing the state from “capture”, that we might fail to place adequate emphasis on other elements of this period, that are not directly related to corruption and state capture. We need it to be clear that we expect the Ramaphosa-led era to be the time when the state acquires the means, including through working with a range of actors committed to democracy and transformation, to reverse the destruction experienced under Zuma. As citizens, we need to take sides in order to ensure that the possibility for democratic recovery is not squandered. 

This is not a personal question, whether or not one likes Zuma or Ramaphosa. I am posing this and other questions because whoever leads the country may help salvage it from its current wrecked state, breathe new life into it and restore some of the democratic promise that many of us cherished 24 years ago. I am asking these questions because I would like to help in what I do, where I am located, to enhance the possibility of bringing about significant change.  

It may be that the ANC has severe limitations that constrain what it can do, on its own, to steer the country towards an emancipatory course. It may well be that electoral fortunes in 2019 will lead to a new coalition of parliamentary forces, including or excluding the ANC in central government. But for the moment one has to assume that the ANC is a key feature of South African politics, at least until 2019, and probably thereafter, possibly in one or another coalition. We have to work out how we relate to it, as individuals or if we are part of other organisations –in political parties, organs of civil society, in social movements, professional bodies and other forms of civic activity. 

Acting through whatever organisations or as individuals who want the best for our country, we need to be clear on why it is necessary and urgent to remove Zuma. This is a well-known question but there are in fact differences in emphasis, so that it bears restating how one understands it. It is important that we agree on what needs to be uprooted in order that we do not have the continuation of patterns of governance, modes of dealing with state and private entities that undermine our collective wellbeing as a country.  

Many opponents of Zuma are recent converts. Those on the outside may have seen and voiced more of Zuma’s flaws. But there is not an inherent virtue in being on the sidelines. Wherever we have been we need to agree and understand what we object to, in the Zuma era, in its fullest extent, and whether we can find ways of acting together to remedy these and other features: 

  • Lawlessness. We need to end the lawlessness that pervades the Zuma-led system of government, whether manifested in individual corruption or the more systemic state capture, the impunity and lack of accountability for wrongdoing that characterises this period. 
  • Violence. We need to end the pervasive violence, found in political scores being settled by use of deadly weapons often resulting in murders, particularly but not exclusively in KwaZulu-Natal. These are found not only between government and opponents, but now within the ANC itself. It is also manifested in war talk by police officials, including the current and previous ministers, and the readiness to use force as a first resort, rather than trying to negotiate the resolution of conflict. That the ANC embraced within its ranks a number of warlords, deriving from the 1980s/early 1990s conflicts, from both the IFP and its own ranks, needs attention from any leader who wishes to address the question of peace. A new leader must emphasise an unqualified commitment to the principles of non-violence and peace, prerequisites for the enjoyment of all rights. 
  • Hyperpatriarchy. We need to combat the hyperpatriarchal ethos of this period that has set back constitutional gains on gender equality and the continued failure to provide adequate protection of the right to freedom of sexual orientation. There is now significant national and international public awareness and readiness to back leadership that takes a strong stand against patriarchy and patriarchal violence. This is evidenced in the pain that many expressed on the 10th anniversary of Zuma’s rape trial and over the death of the complainant, Fezekile Kuzwayo (“Khwezi”). It is also manifested in widespread “coming out” of rape survivors, who in some cases had resisted using the legal process for over 20 years, as with Jennifer Ferguson. 
  • Inequality and unemployment. The level of inequality in the country has continued to widen and made South Africa, by some accounts, the most unequal country in the world. Nevertheless, the resources for addressing the scandalous coexistence of excessive wealth and excessive poverty are being squandered by pillage of the fiscus and attacks on those who wish to practice fiscal discipline. 

Inequality and unemployment cannot be addressed unless the state conserves national resources from looting, addresses national debt and pursues a process of fiscal consolidation. Fiscal discipline cannot be framed in an abstract manner as having qualities necessarily opposed to transformation. It is needed, in particular, to focus on productive activity that enhances employment. Unless the fiscus is safeguarded there will be no resources for development or any other form of economic policy. 

That does not mean that macroeconomic policy is cast in stone. There needs to be a serious debate on all aspects of economic policy. But that presupposes that we set in place trusted ministers and officials who safeguard what belongs to all the people of South Africa. 

If we back the removal of Zuma, how is it to happen? 

Can Ramaphosa do it alone, with his allies in the ANC? Will it help him or hinder him to have the support of democrats more widely? The last few years have seen extensive manifestation of popular anger; people who had never previously protested coming out in the streets to call for the fall of Zuma and also to reclaim their country from the looters. Less publicised perhaps, there have been a small number of social movements, sometimes aided by NGOs and research institutes which have provided expertise in litigation and other respects. The social movements have had membership organised in order to act on a continuous basis to remedy the obstacles that undermine their wellbeing. All of these human resources, more tightly organised on a sustained basis, could strengthen leadership in the Ramaphosa era, particularly if he pursues a clearly emancipatory route, which by definition entails a break with Zumaism. 


Ramaphosa is well aware that many people remain unhappy about his role in the Marikana massacre. He needs to demonstrate that he is willing to engage families of the deceased and other concerned people. He may not accept the accusations that are made, but he needs to be open to discussions and demonstrate that he will be part of processes helping them to find closure.  

Regaining trust and a ‘dignified exit’ 

The last ten years have created a rift between government and most South Africans. Trust is needed for leaders to enjoy a minimum of support. The notion of a ‘dignified exit’ for Zuma needs to be viewed with caution. It is necessary to make concessions to realise important goals but it would be a serious error if any attempt were made to allow Zuma to escape accountability to any courts that require him to face charges. Equally, it would reinforce existing distrust if he were to be free to hold onto any unlawfully acquired wealth. 

We need to do whatever we can to support efforts to remove Zuma and install Ramaphosa as state president, given that he is the leader of the majority party in South Africa, at this point in time. We should do so on the basis that he is mandated, politically and legally, to undertake a clean-up, and being open to discuss going beyond what he may have stated up till now, entailing some of what has been indicated above. 

It may be that in trying to inaugurate a ‘new beginning’ additional deliberations are needed, notably processes of dialogue and listening to one another. Possibly the idea of a national convention, mooted by the SACC, amongst others, if organised on an inclusive basis would be one of these. Many such ideas, like that of a ‘national dialogue’ mooted last year have died very quickly. For an idea to be meaningful it needs to incorporate people from a range of sectors. In particular, there is a need to reach out to people who do not reside in relatively affluent urban areas, but in distant villages and involve them in setting the agenda and deciding on issues at such dialogues or conventions. DM

Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. He is a part-time Professor attached to Rhodes University and an Emeritus Professor at UNISA. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His most recent book is his prison memoir, Inside Apartheid’s Prison, reissued in 2017, with a new introduction covering his more recent “life outside the ANC” by Jacana Media. He blogs at and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner.


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options