The election of Cyril Ramaphosa as president of the African National Congress (ANC), and now the leading contender to become South Africa’s next president, was hailed as a “humbling rebuke” of South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma and a stark rejection of his policies, which have led to anemic economic growth, widespread corruption, and rising frustration in one of Africa’s most significant economies.

Indeed, the markets responded quickly as the South African rand initially surged by more than 4 percent on the news of Ramaphosa’s election, reaching its highest level against the dollar in six months, but were flat a day later.

Ramaphosa’s victory represents an important win for those in South Africa who reject the capture of state institutions and crony capitalism that defined Zuma’s leadership. There were widespread concerns that Nkosana Dlamini-Zuma, Ramaphosa’s rival for the leadership position, would perpetuate many of these policies and shield her ex-husband from legal prosecution for the 783 counts of corruption, fraud, racketeering, and money laundering he is facing. The process of restoring South Africa to the ideals espoused by the late Nelson Mandela and putting the nation’s economy on a sound footing will not be easy, however.


Ramaphosa’s electoral victory over Dlamini-Zuma, a former minister of health and foreign affairs and chair of the African Union, was razor thin. His margin was 179 ballots cast by 4,708 delegates—the slimmest margin of victory in any ANC leadership race in the 105-year-old history of the organization. These results indicate that the ANC is evenly divided between the reformist Ramaphosa faction and the populist Zuma one.

In addition, only three of the candidates Ramaphosa supported won spots among the top six positions in the ANC: Ramaphosa himself, Gwede Mantashe as the ANC chairperson, and Paul Mashatile as the treasurer-general. The other three positions were won by Zuma supporters: David Mabuza as the party’s deputy president (who also won the most votes of all candidates), Ace Magashule as the secretary-general, and party stalwart Jessie Duarte as the deputy secretary-general. The margin of victory in these leadership races ranged from 339 to 24.

Ramaphosa did not fare any better in the vote for membership on the powerful National Executive Committee—the ANC’s chief executive body. Zuma supporters appear to constitute the majority of the 86-member committee.

The narrowness of Ramaphosa’s victory will have significant ramifications. There were those who expected that a victory by the reform wing of the party would lead to Jacob Zuma’s exit from the presidency prior to the May 2019 elections. While he will step down as party leader within a week, it is unclear whether Ramaphosa will be able to cajole or force Zuma into early retirement.

A second challenge will be economic policy. Ramaphosa has promised a “new deal” for South Africa based on an “uncompromising” rejection of waste, cronyism, and corruption. He has targeted 5 percent growth (up from the current rate of 0.7 percent), the creation of 1 million jobs within five years, and the restoration of investor confidence. The difficulty of delivering on these promises was underscored on the last day of the party congress when the ANC resolved to amend the constitution to nationalize the South African Reserve Bank and expropriate land without compensation, policies that could undermine Ramaphosa’s agenda.


Perhaps the first indication of Ramaphosa’s ability to chart a new direction for the ANC will be the appointment of a national director of public prosecutions, the government office that will oversee the prosecution of Jacob Zuma on corruption charges. The high court in Pretoria earlier this month declared Zuma’s selection of Shaun Abrahams for that position “invalid,” ruling that Zuma could not appoint the person who might prosecute him. The deputy president, Ramaphosa, was given 60 days to appoint a new director of public prosecutions. Zuma’s legal team has appealed this ruling.

One of Ramaphosa’s most pressing priorities will be to retool the ANC’s message going into the 2019 elections. In last year’s municipal elections, where the ANC lost control of Johannesburg, Pretoria, and Mandela Bay to the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), the party’s support was 54 percent, the lowest since the first democratic elections in 1994 when Nelson Mandela led the party to a victory with 62 percent of the vote. In the 2016 elections, the DA campaigned on a platform of effective service delivery while the ANC was perceived by many to be a party of self-enrichment and detached from the priorities of the majority of South Africans, namely alleviating poverty, creating jobs and restoring the country’s economic health. Reaching voters and restoring the ANC’s image as the genuine party of the people will be an uphill task for the new party president.


This blog was cross-posted on Brookings’ Africa in Focus.