Too many African states have been governed by the wrong kind of millionaires and even billionaires – those who have “earned” their money while being in office, extracting resources from the state in various ways. Indeed, one of the challenges for African political development has been that state office has too often been seen as the only viable road to personal enrichment in the context of quite limited market opportunities.
But as followers of South African politics now know, billionaire (in terms of South African currency at least) Cyril Ramaphosa was just elected deputy president of the ANC. Ramaphosa was a founding member of the National Union of Mineworkers, and his leadership of the 1980s strikes contributed to the fall of apartheid. His trajectory is reminiscent of Brazil’s “Lula,” a former union leader, who served two successful terms as state president after a few failed bids for office. And yet, Cyril largely stayed on the fringes of politics for more than a decade to join the brave new world of black empowerment, through various holding companies and corporate leadership positions.
So what does a guy do when he’s worth, according to Forbes, over $600 million (more than 5 billion South African Rand)? He found himself elected to the number two spot of the somewhat embattled, but still extremely dominant ANC. As pointed out in today’s Mail and Guardian, this does not necessarily mean he will become the next deputy president of government (though re-elected party president Jacob Zuma surely will take another turn as state president), but either way, he has now reached a new level of political power that had seemed his destiny at the dusk of apartheid government.
What might it mean to have a guy in office who really doesn’t need the spoils of corruption? Unfortunately, of course, “need” can vary, and for some, 600 million might not seem like enough. But since I live in a city that’s been governed pretty darn well by a billionaire, I’d like to contemplate the optimistic scenario that Ramaphosa could help the ANC to chart a better course, serving the public interest in ways that have become increasingly rare. (Hopefully, he won’t push too hard on downsizing the size of soft drinks…) In fact, too many of the ANC’s moral and good governance core, including Desmond Tutu, Trevor Manuel, and many others, have chosen the exit option. Ramaphosa could inject some new ideas about process and efficiency, and quality service delivery; including the South African private sector’s desperate need for a better educated and better trained workforce. Most important, all of that money in the bank just might help him push back against the increasingly pervasive practice of self-enrichment through sweetheart deals, and private perks from the public purse.
Cyril had a shining profile at the dawn of post-apartheid government. Today, he is viewed as a serious businessman, who still retains some liberation movement credentials, albeit somewhat tainted by concerns about his role in the Lonmin strike violence. And of course, one has to wonder, can a guy with so much money, who has been hanging out in corporate board rooms for more than a decade, still be viewed as a man of the people? Moreover, it would be quite a stretch to consider him a “self-made” tycoon, in the sense that he didn’t exactly build any businesses from the ground up. He was in the right places at the right times, and has managed to leverage opportunities afforded at transition into something of a corporate empire. Certainly, he has used power and connections to be successful, but I have yet to see any real accusations of illegal activity. He seems to be a pretty honest and hard-working guy.
As John Campbell points out, Cyril actually won more votes than Zuma at the ANC party conference. No doubt, this could feel threatening to Zuma, who, like his predecessor, could always be recalled mid-term should the party decide to remove him from office.
These caveats notwithstanding, I gently advance the notion that in this case, a billionaire in a position of power might do South Africa some good.