Ramaphosa navigates tricky transition: The ANC's new leader is consolidating his power, but President Jacob Zuma's influence persists.

Author:Thomas, David
Position:COUNTRYFILE: South Africa - Cyril Ramaphosa - African National Congress
 
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Bearing floral wreaths and observed by a crowd of local supporters, the newly elected leadership of the ANC marked 106 years of the party by solemnly visiting the East London gravesite of four founding presidents.

United by their storied history, the stark political differences between incoming president Cyril Ramaphosa, deputy president David Mabuza and secretary general Ace Magashule were momentarily obscured. While the celebration of long-dead leaders remains a bonding force, navigating the living legacy of Jacob Zuma--the ANC's most recent leader and South Africa's divisive outgoing president--is a far more fraught challenge.

Since being narrowly elected ANC leader in December in a bitter inter-party contest against Zuma's hand-picked successor, the pro-business Ramaphosa has quietly set about grasping the reins of power. Yet with Zuma allies elected to key senior roles in the party, Ramaphosa's ability to close an era of state patronage, sluggish economic growth and unending political scandal remains in doubt.

"It's a very tricky transition period. Ramaphosa does have the upper hand at the moment - the momentum is in his favour, there are defections from the Zuma camp and everyone knows he will be the next president," says Robert Besseling, political analyst at ExxAfrica.

"[But] Zuma is still firmly entrenched in the party and government--of the new leadership three of the top six are in his camp, more than half of the National Executive Committee are still associated with the Zuma camp and the vast majority of lawmakers in parliament are in the Zuma camp."

Interregnum

The fractured political landscape is complicated by an ANC quirk which means that while Ramaphosa is now party leader of the ANC, Zuma officially remains president of South Africa until the 2019 elections--a system seemingly designed to fuel government inertia and inter-party factionalism. At time of going to press, rumours suggested that Zuma could be ousted in a matter of weeks.

Faced with this delicate balancing act but safe in the knowledge that time was on his side, Ramaphosa had previously broached the question of Zuma's early exit with magnanimity, sending signals that a dignified transition was likely.

"We need to deal with this matter with the level of maturity it requires, with the proper decorum and I'll say we should never do it in a way that's going to humiliate President Zuma. We should never do it in a manner that's going to also divide the nation," he...

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