Cyril Ramaphosa's 'poisoned chalice': New ANC leader may struggle to reform South Africa

Ramaphosa arrives to take part in the fourth day of the party's national conference in Johannesburg. PHOTO: AFP

JOHANNESBURG (REUTERS) - When Cyril Ramaphosa won the tight vote to become the new leader of the African National Congress on Monday (Dec 18) after years of near-misses, his loyal supporters jumped to their feet, pumping their fists and cheering.

But as the results for other top positions emerged, the cheers quickly evaporated, as it became clear that ANC officials close to President Jacob Zuma would still control important levers of the ruling party.

Ramaphosa, who has served as South Africa's deputy president under Zuma since 2014, narrowly defeated former Cabinet minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Zuma's ex-wife and preferred successor, in the race for the ANC's top job.

Ramaphosa is now within touching distance of becoming president, fulfilling a lifelong ambition for the man Nelson Mandela wanted to be his heir after the end of apartheid in 1994.

Markets rallied on Ramaphosa's victory, as investors piled into rand assets on hopes Ramaphosa would follow through on campaign promises to uproot corruption and rekindle economic growth.

But the mood in the conference hall in Johannesburg where the ANC's new "top six" most powerful officials were announced told a different story.

The Ramaphosa camp fumed that Zuma loyalists David Mabuza and Ace Magashule were named ANC deputy president and secretary-general, while Dlamini-Zuma backer Jessie Duarte kept her position as deputy secretary-general.

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"We started on a high note, but as we went down the top six we started having problems. The thing is that Cyril has to work with this collective," said Sinenhlanhla Xaba, an ANC member from the Soweto township.

On Tuesday supporters of Senzo Mchunu, Ramaphosa's pick for secretary general, disputed the vote count that saw him lose out to Magashule, a sign that Ramaphosa's team was trying to gain greater control of the upper echelons of the ANC.

Analysts say the slim margin of Ramaphosa's victory will help keep the ANC together but will make it difficult for Ramaphosa to pursue a pro-growth policy agenda, as the ANC faction that backed Dlamini-Zuma and puts greater emphasis on wealth redistribution will wield considerable influence.

Any attempt to remove the 75-year-old Zuma as South African president before his second term ends in 2019 - something which ANC officials close to Ramaphosa have called for - will also be complicated by Zuma allies retaining senior posts.

Zuma's scandal-plagued time in office has badly tarnished the ANC's image both at home and abroad and has seen economic growth slow to a near-standstill.

Zuma has survived several votes of no confidence because he controls large sections of the ANC through his use of political patronage.

Lukhona Mnguni, a political analyst at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said the ANC leadership outcome was a "poisoned chalice" for Ramaphosa because officials aligned with Zuma would constrain his room for manoeuvre.

"Ramaphosa's team know this was no victory. He didn't get the people he wanted and hopes for recalling (removing) Zuma have been dampened," Mnguni said. "If Zuma is to be recalled, it would only be because Mabuza and Magashule gang up on him, which I don't think is likely." Ramaphosa, 65, told reporters on Tuesday that the ANC's new top six was a "unity leadership" which reflected the views of different sections of the party.


Investors had hoped Ramaphosa, a former trade union leader and millionaire businessman, would secure a decisive win in the ANC race, putting him in a strong position to enact reforms which could help South Africa avoid further credit rating downgrades.

Dlamini-Zuma, who President Zuma publicly backed for ANC leader, was seen as more focused on tackling racial inequality and struggled to distance herself from the corruption scandals that have dogged her ex-husband.

But in the new ANC top six announced on Monday, three officials were from the "slate" of Ramaphosa's preferred candidates and three were from Dlamini-Zuma's ticket.

"With no clear win for either the Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma or Cyril Ramaphosa slates, I expect the policy paralysis that we have seen will continue until one side 'defeats' the other,"said Geoff Blount, managing director at BayHill Capital.

Gwen Ngwenya at the Institute of Race Relations said expectations for sweeping policy change under Ramaphosa were overblown.

"The Ramaphosa of fantasy, the figure of a decisive man of action, has never manifest himself in reality," she said, noting that promises Ramaphosa made before becoming deputy president never materialised.

One important consequence of the compromise leadership outcome seen on Monday is that it lessens the likelihood of the ANC splitting before the 2019 election - which had been raised by analysts as a possibility in the event of a clear victory for the Dlamini-Zuma faction.

Attention now shifts to the makeup of the ANC's new National Executive Committee (NEC), a group of around 80 officials which steers the party and will be elected in the coming days.

Should the new NEC be just as split as the ANC's top six, that would make the prospects for major reform even more remote.

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