After days of digging in his heels during lengthy and reportedly difficult discussions, Jacob Zuma resigned as President of South Africa with immediate effect on the evening of 14 February.
Zuma was no longer able to stare down the ultimatum handed to him by the National Executive Committee – the highest organ of the African National Congress – which had given him until 15 February to resign or be “recalled” – the very polite term used within the ANC to describe being fired. Had he not gone of his own volition, Zuma would have faced the hugely ignominious prospect of having a no-confidence vote brought against him in Parliament by his own party.
True to form, Zuma went in his own style; in this case, initially jokingly and then begrudgingly. Speaking from the Union Buildings in Pretoria, Zuma also had some sharp words for his colleagues.
Deputy President and ANC President Cyril Ramaphosa now becomes acting President. Constitutionally, Parliament must now elect a new president within thirty days. Although the vote will simply be a rubber stamp for the Ramaphosa presidency, it will strengthen his hand as he takes the reins of a deeply divided party.
Among Zuma’s legacies is an ANC that effectively has been split into two camps: those for and those against Zuma. At the apex of the ANC is the powerful National Executive Committee (NEC), an 86-member body that prescribes party – and, thus, government – policy.
Although he triumphed over his main rival and key Zuma supporter Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to be elected ANC President in December 2017, Ramaphosa’s victory was by no means emphatic. As newly-installed party leader, he might reasonably have been able to count on the support of 40 of the 85 other NEC members.
Despite his popularity among the party’s rank-and-file members, the lack of support within the NEC reduces his ability to constrain those who advocate Mugabe-esque “radical economic transformation”, including punitive measures against “white monopoly capital” and the expropriation of land without compensation. Such policies, which tend to be popular among Zuma cadres, invariably overlook the need for necessities such as the taxation revenues with which to actually fund government programmes, not to mention the jobs and food required by citizens. Tellingly, even Ms Dlamini-Zuma herself had since backed away from Zuma, stating on 13 February that he should go. Such a turnaround strongly hints at a shift within the NEC, if not wholeheartedly towards Ramaphosa, then at least away from the disgraced Zuma, even if for no other reason than self-preservation.
For their parts, the business and agricultural communities will no doubt be hoping that, as a very successful businessman, Ramaphosa’s business acumen and demonstrated ability to negotiate and compromise will go a long way towards striking the right balance between the country’s ever more pressing economic and social needs.
That South Africa remains riven by glaring inequalities more than two decades after the end of apartheid is beyond question. Had Zuma devoted more of his time and energies as president to working in the national interest rather than deepening the pockets of himself, his family and his cronies through a very successful programme of “state capture”, the country would arguably be at least a bit better off today.
If the ANC can come together to govern equitably and in the best interests of all South Africans, while repudiating the corruption, incompetence and cronyism of the Zuma era, the Ramaphosa Presidency may offer a welcome return to the optimism and vitality that initially characterised post-apartheid South Africa.