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Zuma's fall a chance to take moral leadership in Africa

By Fergal Keane
Africa editor

image copyrightAFP
image captionSouth Africa's new ruler will steer away from the conspiratorial culture that flourished under his predecessor

It is rare in a journalistic life that one gets to sit a few yards from a president as he announces his resignation and then, within the same 24 hours, stand in the presence of his successor as he is sworn in.

More so when it happens without a shot being fired or vast crowds taking to the streets.

But South Africa has always been a nation to surprise. And to infuriate. And to inspire.

It is like no other country I have ever reported from.

From my first experiences in the apartheid 1980s to the rise of President Cyril Ramaphosa, it has frequently havered between the possibility of disaster and triumph, sometimes accommodating both possibilities within the space of a single day.

The fall of Jacob Zuma came about, in part, because of several uniquely South African dynamics.

Unruly nation

It would never have happened without a strong constitution. This document was forged with painstaking care in the early to mid-1990s and is shaped by the memory of apartheid's brutal excesses and the dictatorships which had caused such misery elsewhere on the African continent.

But the protections it enshrines - of free speech, democratic accountability, an independent judiciary - are also reflections of a national characteristic, what I would venture to call a redemptive fractiousness.

South Africans love to argue. And they have the gift of being able to laugh at themselves and their leaders.

image copyrightAFP
image captionPresident Zuma took some persuading, but was eventually forced to quit

In the dying days of the Zuma government there was a typically South African flurry of dramatic rumours.

Zuma might declare a state of emergency and use the army to crush his opponents. Memories of PW Botha and the apartheid emergency of 1986 still haunt an older generation.

Then came a story that suggested Mr Ramaphosa was negotiating a deal that might see Mr Zuma given immunity from prosecution if he turned state witness in major corruption allegations.

Both were quickly debunked.

The South African military will never be allowed to occupy the space in national life that it did in the securocrat apartheid state.

Even Mr Zuma's most ardent supporters can remember what happens when you put too much power into the hands of the soldiers.

As for immunity, it was always a nonsensical rumour. The new dispensation had no intention of beginning with a shabby deal that would, in any case, have been swiftly struck down by the courts.

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image captionMr Ramaphosa knows that the rot in the ruling party runs deeper than Mr Zuma

So how is President Ramaphosa likely to govern? The man I have observed over nearly 30 years is likely to move quickly to reduce the influence of the different security and intelligence departments.

This will be a government led by a civilian schooled in the trade unions and civil society who never felt comfortable with the conspiratorial culture of some elements that returned from exile with the ANC.

Over coffee the morning after President Ramaphosa's state-of-the-nation speech, my colleague Andrew Harding, who lived through two terms of Mr Zuma, summed up the change: "This will be a CEO presidency."

Cyril Ramaphosa - South African union leader, mine boss, president

Precisely. Civil servants are already nervously wondering about his plans for downsizing bloated government departments. There will be a war on government waste, and visits to government departments across the country, probably unannounced.

But in a moment of hope some caution is needed.

Just as in the days after apartheid the public discourse was filled with white politicians claiming they had never really supported apartheid, we can now expect many who thrived under President Zuma to declare themselves to have been ardent enemies of corruption all along.

Mr Zuma was undoubtedly the figurehead under whom so much venality flourished. But the rot runs deep in the ruling party.

The new president will move carefully, as always, but we can expect to see a steady edging out of those associated with the old regime.

image copyrightAFP
image captionThis is South Africa's chance to reclaim some of the moral leadership it offered the continent in the past

Some of them may fall because they find themselves embroiled in criminal proceedings. Others will be cold shouldered and outmanoeuvred.

Will this split Africa's oldest liberation movement? I don't believe so. With elections looming next year the party will pull together, recognising that Mr Ramaphosa offers the best hope of victory.

Beyond the party, South African society is calling for a reckoning on corruption. There were crooks at many levels of society who stole from state coffers, and many had links to the ANC.

The truth commission which followed apartheid saw the beneficiaries of apartheid continue a life of privilege much as they had done before. I sense South Africans do not wish to see a similar veil drawn over corruption.

There will be a "state capture" inquiry to join the other public processes which are forensically laying out the abuses of the Zuma years.

And there will be trials of those accused of abusing their power. Jacob Zuma could be among those in court.

Africa is undergoing profound political changes. But one cannot impose a single template and disregard the complex factors at work in different regions.

In the last few months I have witnessed the aftermath of elections in Kenya and Liberia, and the removal of unpopular leaders in Zimbabwe and South Africa.

In each place the dynamics were different.

Zimbabwe happened because the incumbent Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace alienated the security elite that had propped up their ruinous regime for so long.

In Liberia, the successful transition from one democratically elected leader to another, for the first time in the nation's history, came about in the context of a broadening of democracy across much of west Africa.

In central and east Africa authoritarianism is the dominant force, for now.

But the peaceful removal of Jacob Zuma, led by the institutions of a vibrant democracy, will inspire activists in Kinshasa, Kigali, Kampala, Nairobi and numerous other points across the continent.

From the days when corruption and misrule threatened to make South Africa a laughing stock there is a chance to reclaim some moral leadership on the continent.

Related Topics

  • Cyril Ramaphosa
  • Jacob Zuma
  • African National Congress
  • South Africa