Do Mnangagwa and Ramaphosa represent a moment of hope?

Mnangagwa meeting Cyril Ramaphosa in Pretoria (Twitter)

In the snows of Davos, two brand new southern African leaders are attempting to persuade the world that they have a good story to tell.

By Martin Plaut

South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa is not yet president, but he is leading his country’s delegation. He is joined by the new president of Zimbabwe, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who ousted his old ally and mentor, Robert Mugabe in an (almost) bloodless coup last November.

Both face internal crises which will take years to resolve; both have tarnished pasts, yet both represent a moment of hope for the region.

The situation in South Africa is dire. As an official report stated plainly, the country’s major institutions have come close to being “captured” by the ruling elite.

The report, by an incredibly brave woman, Thuli Madonsela, showed how the state’s resources were being syphoned off for the benefit of the Zuma family, their Indian backers (the Guptas) and their associates (the Zumas and Guptas deny the allegations).

Matters came to a head in December last year when Ramaphosa narrowly won leadership of the African National Congress.

He beat Zuma’s chosen successor – his former wife and former chair of the African Union Commission, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

It was a nail-bitingly close contest, which Ramaphosa finally won by 2 440 votes to 2 261, after a three-day congress marked by bitter backroom political infighting.

Since then Ramaphosa has strengthened his position.

Zuma – who remains president of the country despite having lost the presidency of the ANC – is clinging on to power.  But commentators suggest that he could be forced to step down within weeks, if not days.

“It’s no longer IF he goes – it’s When and How”, wrote Carien du Plessis. The sense of relief in the ANC that Zuma is departing is enormous. Activists no longer feel bound to defend the indefensible.

Rebuilding confidence (local and international) in South Africa will be no easy task, but Ramaphosa has set about it with a will.

He has overhauled the management of Eskom, the state electricity supply utility. Eskom planned to raise $26bn in the next five years, a sum so large it could have rendered the country at risk of a default.

Goldman Sachs labelled Eskom the biggest risk to the economy. At the same time, the Guptas’ assets have been frozen to prevent them being taken abroad.

Ramaphosa, 65, is one of South Africa’s richest men, thanks to wealth he accumulated after being driven to the margins of politics in 1997.

A cautious negotiator who cut his teeth in the trade union movement, he has enjoyed his financial status. He received considerable stick for his stake the wildlife industry and a $1.5m bid he made for a buffalo in 2012.

It was this – along with his role in the Marikana mine massacre – that lost him a great deal of support. Opponents were able to label him out of touch with the poor who make up the bedrock of the ANC.

If Ramaphosa has some questions to answer, Mnangagwa, 75, has an entire quiz to confront.

One of Mugabe’s longest serving lieutenants, he knows where all the bodies are buried – many of them literally.

Mnangagwa ran the security ministry in the 1980s when the notorious North Korean trained Fifth Brigade was unleashed on Matabeleland. Although he rebutted claims that he was the enforcer to the New Statesman, few believed his denials.

Subsequently Mnangagwa was involved in elections which were rigged in favour of the ruling party, although he has insisted the process was credible.

The November coup left the military in key positions of authority and they have been no fans of democracy. Questions are already being asked about the planned elections for later this year.

Why then the optimism? In part, because the situation is so dire that almost any change is to be welcomed.

Mnangagwa has promised that the elections will be free and fair and overseen by the international community; that commercial farmers (mostly white) will have their farms restored and that corruption will not be tolerated.

Similarly, Ramaphosa has offered a vision of South Africa with an economy that grows fast enough to erode unemployment, while providing the construction of the roads, hospitals and schools that the country so badly needs.

Such promises have been made repeatedly in the past; none have come to fruition. But the men who now make them have seen what rampant corruption can do to a society.

They are both rich enough not to need to add to their wealth. And they understand that their countrymen and women will give them little leeway if they fail to fulfil their pledges.

They do have another factor on their side: the expanding world economy will require the minerals that both countries are famous for. This should drive up prices and help pay for the desperately required social services.

At the same time, the optimism that came with independence and the end of apartheid has long since evaporated. Politicians in southern Africa – like those in the rest of the world – must be judged by results.

This article was first published by the New Statesman