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South Africa must resist another captured president: this time by the markets

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Cyril Ramaphosa, newly sworn-in South African president, addresses the South African Parliament on February 20, 2018, in Cape Town.South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said today he wanted “healing and atonement” following the 2012 massacre of 34 striking workers at a mine run by Lonmin where he was a director. “I would like to use this opportunity to address what role I played in my capacity as a Lonmin director in the events of that tragic week,” said Ramaphosa in an address to parliament in Cape Town./ AFP PHOTO / RODGER BOSCH


The African National Congress (ANC) has made a dangerous habit of bringing post-apartheid South Africa to the brink of instability and the common ruin of all. The resignation of former President Jacob Zuma and his replacement by Cyril Ramaphosa was such a moment. It brought home the point that the over-concentration of power in the office of the president has clearly not worked

A rethink on president-centred politics and the threats it poses to the democracy are crucial for the post-Zuma period. South Africa needs to re-imagine democratic practice, leadership and how power works.

Some sections of South African society have reduced the Zuma problem to a corruption problem. Dismantle Zuma’s kleptocratic network, the argument goes, and all is solved. Zuma’s demise and a few high profile prosecutions will suffice.

But another view on the Zuma problem – and one with which I concur – suggests it is a problem of contending class projects inside the ANC. The neoliberal class project under Presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki saw South Africa integrated into global markets. It maintained stability through modest redistributive reforms. This project laid the basis for a new black middle class to emerge while systematically weakening labour and the left.

But it surrendered the state (including the presidency) to transnational capital and the power of finance.The Zuma project, on the other hand, advanced looting as the basis of accumulation and class formation. The extra-constitutional state that emerged deepened the macroeconomic, institutional and legitimacy crisis of the ANC-led state. The left and labour, aligned with the ANC in the tripartite alliance, were co-opted and divided. Both these projects are entrenched in the ANC.

Now what? Messiah-centred presidential politics is extremely dangerous. This is particularly true in a country of extreme inequality and with a formal concentration of power in the office of the president. If politics is not represented, thought and acted beyond this, South Africa is going to repeat historical mistakes.

Since the ANC’s December 2017 conference the media, the banks and international institutions have been talking up a narrative of the “Cyril effect”. Zuma’s removal is attributed to this. In fact the Cyril effect is a narrative of capture of South Africa’s new president by transnational and financial capital.

South Africa’s democracy cannot afford another captured president beholden to credit rating agencies, currency fluctuations, investment flows and business perceptions. South Africa’s democracy has to be grounded in the needs of its citizens and the mandates given by its Constitution.


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Cyril RamaphosaJacob Zuma
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