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opinion

Political analyst, author and broadcaster based in Johannesburg.

There is palpable excitement in South Africa about the election of Cyril Ramaphosa as South Africa's new President. It is difficult to begrudge South Africans' optimism in the aftermath of Jacob Zuma's ruinous years in charge.

Yet, it is equally important to be led by the facts. South Africa is one of the most unequal countries on the planet and the government itself revised its growth forecast to a paltry 0.7 per cent for this financial year. Add to these horrific data points the twin scourges of rampant unemployment – higher than 30 per cent by some measurements – plus callously high levels of poverty, and it is obvious that rhetorical appeals by Mr. Ramaphosa for unity and co-operation among labour, business, civil society and the state will not be enough to change reality.

The material conditions of this battered society are characterized by racialized inequities and the economic marginalization of millions of poor black South Africans. Mr. Ramaphosa will not easily achieve economic democracy to complement the political freedom ushered in in 1994.

Mr. Ramaphosa's challenge does not end there. Mr. Zuma effectively sold key parts of the South African state to the highest bidders in the private sector. The phrase "state capture" has become part of weary South Africans' daily vocabulary.

It describes the commercial capture of state-owned companies, and even ministries within the state, by private individuals such as the Gupta brothers, a family that allegedly preyed on Mr. Zuma's constitutional delinquency by exploiting their proximity to him. The publicly available evidence that has emerged over the past year in support of this disturbing narrative is now indubitable.

Such was the subversion of the constitution by Mr. Zuma that even the criminal justice system has been used for nefarious political ends. Consequently, the looters who are in cahoots with Mr. Zuma and other wayward politicians appointed to Mr. Zuma's cabinet have yet to be brought to book.

Even the country's intelligence agencies are politically compromised and, under the pretense of needing to remain opaque about their financials – the claim being that opacity is necessary to safeguard secrets – intelligence operatives themselves have stolen millions from the South African taxpayer. The South African state is weak and not fit for developmental purposes. The state has simply become a trough for Mr. Zuma and his fellow travellers to eat from, furiously.

This bring us to the two key difficulties that Mr. Ramaphosa now faces.

Firstly, it is not true that all the woes of the South African state and the governing African National Congress (ANC) are reducible to Mr. Zuma.

The ANC itself is politically responsible for the Zuma years. The political system in South Africa means that Mr. Zuma was sponsored by the party that had seconded him to the state. The ANC did nothing.

They simply let him continue, unabated, selling the nation's silverware.

Mr. Ramaphosa was part of the ANC leadership and the ANC government that was led by Mr. Zuma. This means that, in the first instance, the ANC has moral and political blame that it needs to accept. Any attempt to disentangle Mr. Zuma from the ANC must fail because it runs counter to the truth about how Mr. Zuma ascended to power.

Mr. Zuma is a South African nightmare imposed on the country by Mr. Ramaphosa and the rest of the party leadership now pretending to be disconnected from the political and economic sins of Mr. Zuma.

The opposition parties will exploit these truths as South Africa approaches a general election next year. It will be very hard for Mr. Ramaphosa to avoid being skewered in public debate.

Thus far, the newly elected leadership of the ANC has shown no contrition for its role in Mr. Zuma's turbulent years in charge. This lack of contrition will not help the governing party return to power next year with a sizable majority.

Secondly, even if Mr. Ramaphosa succeeds in persuading citizens to not belabour the ANC's past sins, the reality is that he has only some 15 months until that general election and that is very little time to generate early wins that you can take into the election cycle.

The economy, as sketched above, is so weak, combined with state and democratic institutions battered by Mr. Zuma, that Mr. Ramaphosa would have to work impossibly hard to visibly reverse the rot within the party and the state.

He could, of course, yet become the technocratic genius South Africans had hoped former president Thabo Mbeki was going to be after the Nelson Mandela years, but wasn't, in the end. But it would be foolhardy to overinvest in Mr. Ramaphosa. He faces an unenviably difficult task handed him by history.

Mr. Ramaphosa's commitment to constitutionalism is a welcome break from Mr. Zuma's anti-constitutionalism.

South Africans, however, need more than liberal constitutional jurisprudence. They need urgent material improvements in their lives.

On Friday, Mr. Ramaphosa again appealed for unity and co-operation between divided South Africans in his maiden state of the nation address. But, of course, his words mean nothing without demonstrable action. That's the real test awaiting South Africa's new leader.