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EDINBURGH — South Africa has deteriorated under Jacob Zuma but has been given a second chance at developing into a democracy that works for a majority rather than a clique with the election of Cyril Ramaphosa as ANC leader. Although Ramaphosa is president of the ANC, Zuma remains president of South Africa. Many are pondering what’s next now that Ramaphosa has managed to prise power away from the Zuma family, after narrowly beating Jacob’s ex-wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in the ANC leadership contest. South African politics expert Johann van Rooyen looks back to the last days of PW Botha’s leadership to assess what is possible as Ramaphosa moves to deliver on his commitments. Van Rooyen compares and contrasts the two eras, delivering a verdict that Zuma is likely to be on the losing side of an inevitable power struggle. – Jackie Cameron
By Johann van Rooyen*
The election of Cyril Ramaphosa as president of the African National Congress and Jacob Zuma remaining on as the South African president for a further 18 months, is reminiscent of another era in South African politics.
In January 1989, the South African president, PW Botha, had a mild stroke and decided unilaterally and without thinking too deeply about the implications, to separate his position as president from that of leader of the National Party. Ostensibly Botha wanted to ‘lighten his workload’ and to be able fulfill the role as a national ‘unifier’ for all races. He resigned as party leader in February and requested the party to elect a new leader. FW de Klerk’s narrow victory as leader of the National Party on the same day set in motion a chain of events that led to Botha being forced out seven months later.
The conflict that ensued between De Klerk and Botha was, at its core, a power struggle between two centers of power. Botha became a president without a power base (except for the one that he believed he had among all “good South Africans”), and De Klerk felt that he had the base to implement his own reformist policies. Over the next few months Botha pretended as if nothing had changed and tried to continue with general policy-making decisions, including issues of national security, foreign affairs, constitutional affairs and the economy, while De Klerk attempted to stamp his authority on the government and began to contemplate some progressive reforms. Clashes ranged from subtle barbs by Botha, challenging his successor’s status and motives, and Botha’s private reception of the still-imprisoned Nelson Mandela without consulting De Klerk.
The hostility between the two men eventually turned into open conflict over the date of the next general election and matters came to a head in August 1989, when a seething Botha publicly challenged De Klerk on his meeting with Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia. The vast majority of the NP caucus supported De Klerk. Botha had several options – he could fire the whole cabinet, call a general election or resign. After a volatile cabinet meeting where a bitter Botha levied recrimination against his colleagues, he announced his resignation on television the next day. As Botha’s successor, De Klerk then continued to transform the South African political landscape within the next six months.
While the constitutional position in which PW Botha found himself in 1989 differs from that which Zuma finds himself 28 years later, the principle of a weakened leader without a loyal and legitimate powerbase remains the same. Ramaphosa will soon want to change the direction of the country away from the ‘failing state’ that SA has become under the corruption, state capture and incompetence of the Zuma era. While Zuma has everything to gain from the status quo and still has his grip on the levers of power as President, the center of gravity has dramatically shifted to the new leader.
And during his remaining time as President and probably much sooner, Zuma will learn that Ramaphosa’s power base has increased exponentially and that he will be directly challenged on all fronts. This includes Zuma’s prerogative to appoint cabinet ministers. Zuma’s short-term salvation might be that fact that 49% of the congress voted for his preferred candidate Dlamini-Zuma, but even this leverage will wear off as Ramaphosa tightens his grip on power. Conflict on policy and administration will emerge between Zuma and Ramaphosa, just like between FW de Klerk and PW Botha. Like Botha, Zuma will be on the losing side most of the time, and he probably has less than six months left as President of South Africa.
- Johann van Rooyen has a doctorate from the University of Cape Town and is the author of several books, including ‘The Hard Right: South Africa’s New White Power’, ‘The New Great Trek – the Story of South Africa’s White Exodus’ and ‘Residency and Citizenship through Investment: The 2016 Report for Emigrants, Expatriates and Investors’. Van Rooyen runs the Citizenship by Investment Research Consultancy (CIRC), focusing on independent research in global financial, political and migration issues. He delivers presentations at world-class conferences and publishes research on a regular basis. Formerly from Cape Town, he is based in Vancouver.