By Rafiq Raji
This past Valentine’s day, former South African president, Jacob Zuma, very likely disrupted the evening of many Africa economists. Although I made a determined effort to stay off my phone, I could not help returning to it when my date happened on a close friend and had to briefly exchange pleasantries. And since we were hitherto waiting on a queue for the advertised “food special” at the cinema – the “potato chips and chicken” ended up being popcorn, by the way – I did what is considered normal these days: I took a look at my Twitter account. It was just in time for the breaking but sad news of the death of Zimbabwean opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai. Momentarily, I thought to myself: Could this be a sign of what to expect from Mr. Zuma’s imminent press conference? One could not be too sure: In a rambling interview earlier in the day, Mr. Zuma literally dug in his heels. True to type, he did not vouchsafe his decision to give way for his deputy and freshly minted ruling African National Congress (ANC) party leader, Cyril Ramaphosa, until the very end. Such was my irritation during what seemed like another defiant speech, as I tried to also enjoy the Black Panther movie that I was watching in tandem – the context of which should have similarly provided a hint about what was about to happen – I made up my mind Mr. Zuma was about to take everyone on another merry-go-round. I had an odd feeling subsequently, deciding to take just one last look at my phone: Mr. Zuma had resigned. It was with some restraint that I managed to get a hold of myself. Like most South Africans, I was quite relieved. Things moved quickly afterwards. Next day, Mr. Ramaphosa was unanimously elected unopposed by the parliament and sworn-in hours later. Today (16 February), the new president will be delivering his first State of the Nation Address (SONA). It could also perhaps be the first disciplined one in quite a while.
So, what should Mr. Ramaphosa’s priorities be? Tackling corruption should be topmost of these, for sure. Before Mr. Zuma’s capitulation, and perhaps as a means to that end, the elite Hawks police unit made major arrests at the home of the wealthy Indian-born associates of the former president, the infamous “The Guptas”. They epitomise the rot that permeated the Zuma administration, the so-called “state capture”, which involved using their well-known friendship with the former president to peddle influence, determining who gets government tenders and even appointing ministers. This newfound momentum in the anti-corruption fight is directly attributable to Mr. Ramaphosa’s “new era”; that is, even as he was still deputy president then. One day now into his presidency of the Republic, he must do his utmost to sustain the momentum, especially as his honeymoon period is likely to be for just a few days, not weeks. A way he could immediately signal that he means business would be to immediately reshuffle the cabinet he inherited. Many would be more than a tad disappointed if finance minister Malusi Gigaba is not replaced before budget day on February 21, for instance. Considering the short notice, an experienced replacement would be needed. In this regard, there have been suggestions that former finance minister Trevor Manuel might be tipped for the job. Mr. Manuel’s morning jog with the president yesterday (February 15) on the promenade by the gorgeous beaches in Cape Town adds to speculations that he might be the stopgap choice. Regardless, a new finance minister must be one that market participants like, trust and respect.
Failure Not An Option
At Mr. Ramaphosa’s election in parliament yesterday, there was unprecedented unity, a breath of fresh air in a hitherto rancorous chamber. Of course, MPs from the ultra-leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) could not resist adding a little drama to the proceedings: after instigating a brief provocation, they staged a walkout. This was not totally surprising. In any case, at a press conference just a few hours before the presidential election, Julius Malema, the EFF leader, promised decorum by his “fighters” during Mr. Ramaphosa’s SONA today. Even so, Mr. Malema still took aim at his ANC counterpart, accusing him of a myriad misdemeanours, including his handling of the Marikana massacre of protesting mineworkers, victims of which are yet to be compensated. As far as the fiery EFF leader was concerned, palpably miffed at suggestions that he might return to the ANC now that Mr. Zuma is out of office, the problem was never just about the former president but the ANC itself. So, like the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party, the EFF would rather parliament be dissolved and fresh elections called. There is little chance of that happening. For now, all the opposition parties are keen to give Mr. Ramaphosa the benefit of the doubt. Their conditional support is, however, predicated on the expectation that his “new era” would be a far cry from his predecessor’s unusual ways.
• Rafiq Raji, a writer and researcher, is based in Lagos, Nigeria. Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji