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Opinion How South Africa’s new president can restore legitimacy

Robert Rotberg is the founding director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program on Intrastate Conflict, a former senior fellow at CIGI and president emeritus of the World Peace Foundation.

President Elect of South Africa and President of the African National Congress (ANC) Cyril Ramaphosa needed a decisive victory to give him added leverage within the deeply fractured ANC.

WIKUS DE WET/AFP/Getty Images

Because President Cyril Ramaphosa’s new leadership of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) was only narrowly validated when citizens voted in last week’s parliamentary election, he will have to work even harder than ever to bolster legitimacy. He won last week’s national parliamentary election with a reduced majority and a far-less ringing endorsement of his policies and integrity than he (and those many South Africans who seek a return to the promise of the Nelson Mandela years) had hoped. (Parliamentary majorities choose South Africa’s president.)

Across the country, the ANC’s total vote sunk by nearly five points, from 62.1 per cent in 2014 to 57.5 per cent now. The ANC also only barely won in Gauteng – its wealthiest and most middle-class province – with a smidge over 50 per cent, against 53.6 in 2014. Its total vote in other provinces such as KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape, North West, the Northern Cape and Mpumalanga were also strikingly lower than in 2014. Under Mr. Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, Mr. Mandela’s successor, the ANC polled as much as 69 per cent of the total vote nationally.

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Mr. Ramaphosa needed a decisive victory to give him added leverage within the deeply fractured ANC. He will now struggle to find other ways to differentiate the efficacy of his leadership and policies from those espoused by ANC officials loyal to former president Jacob Zuma. Within the ANC’s divided central executive committee, too, Mr. Ramaphosa will now have a tougher battle than his “good government” faction had anticipated against corrupt ANC ministers and officials.

To strengthen the credibility of his administration, and therefore of the ANC generally, Mr. Ramaphosa has to turn the lights back on, find a way to create jobs, uplift the incomes of his now grudgingly loyal followers, enlarge the housing supply and – central to everything – restore the probity of his party. Otherwise, if he fails, this may be South Africa’s last ANC government. (It long ago lost control in the Cape Province, ruled by the opposition Democratic Alliance with strong mixed-race support.)

Eskom, the government’s electrical generating monopoly, was corrupted and gutted by previous ANC governments. It now distributes shortages of power by “load shedding,” turning cities and provinces dark intermittently. There are innumerable interruptions to residential and business supplies. Mr. Ramaphosa must now ensure that factories and lights work.

Creating new jobs fast enough to catch up with the country’s growing youth bulge is going to be extremely difficult since South Africa’s economy is anemic. But, if Mr. Ramaphosa can credibly begin to tackle the odious levels of corruption that the country endured under Mr. Zuma (now facing at least 16 court charges of fraud), and the coarsening of national life that naturally followed, foreign and domestic investors will return and establish new employment opportunities. At least, that is Mr. Ramaphosa’s plan.

A further key to more and better jobs is more and better education. South Africa suffers from a skills shortage. Too many secondary school graduates lack qualifications; too many cannot attend university or vocational training to strengthen skills. Unemployment ranges upward to 50 per cent, forcing too many young Africans to make do in the informal sector.

South Africans always say that they want good jobs, good schooling opportunities and more and better housing. Mr. Ramaphosa must struggle to deliver those public goods, and more. Otherwise he may even fail to keep a tight grip on the ANC, much less the country.

Most of all, last week’s election was about citizens being fed up with theft by politicians. On Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index scale, South Africa ranked 73rd (of 180 countries), well below Botswana, the Seychelles and Mauritius in Africa, and just after Jamaica and the Solomon Islands. It is at the same level as Morocco and Tunisia and just slightly better than Bulgaria. Mr. Zuma’s regime stole blatantly and his “state” was “captured” to deliver criminal proceeds to three Indian businessmen working with Mr. Zuma, his son and others in the ANC.

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If Mr. Ramaphosa, 66, a wealthy reputedly non-corrupt former trade unionist, and businessman with intellectual tastes, can clean out his party’s remaining Zuma-loyalists and those who still seek underhand advantage, then the ANC can emerge cleansed and stronger.

Accordingly, if Mr. Ramaphosa can now don the Mandelan mantle that was meant to be his in mid-1990s, South Africa will be able take its place once again as the natural leader of an advancing Africa. Last week’s election gave the ANC (and possibly South Africa) its last best chance to hold its head high.

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