Contemplating a different kind of billionaire in higher office in Africa

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.

Trevor Manuel is my hero

Trevor Manuel was an anti-apartheid activist and community organizer, and detained several times under the old South African regime. Mandela appointed him as minister of trade and industry, and within two years switched him to minister of finance — a job he would hold for more than a decade. Manuel was remarkably successful, kept financial markets calm, and has always been a voice of reason. It appeared he would leave government when Mbeki was forced out, but has stayed on under Zuma as minister of planning.

His has been a stunning career, and luckily for South Africa, he has not yet been snatched up by a high-paying investment bank or international organization. Instead, as reported in the Mail and Guardian yesterday, he continues to speak his mind to hypocrisy and destructive discourse. As I’ve written about a few times before, the South African state has recently made several moves to control the flow of information in very undemocratic ways. In a few snippets pasted below from a meeting with South African newspaper editors, Manuel challenges those around him to be  more modest in their view of power, and to engage more with those from other perspectives

The idea that we have now been elected to supplant all leadership must be wrong in every aspect of the word… We need a different quality of discourse. We need to raise the level of interaction … and it is not a venture that is possible without the press actively applying its mind…How do we find each other? Because if we don’t, I think that there is a vacuum that lays the basis for creating a society that becomes increasingly less informed about itself.

Hard to disagree with any of that. But in the current political discourse, such verbiage has been pretty rare.

A century of the African National Congress

Whatever one thinks of the current incarnation of the ANC as a ruling party, its history is inspirational and transcends present conflicts in South Africa. The passing of 100 years since its conception is something to celebrate. Opposition parties are complaining about the money that will be spent on the festivities, but frankly, it might do the country quite a bit of good if the country’s current leaders take some time to reflect upon the organization’s history and get back in touch with its core values. The nature of the celebration is bringing elder statesmen such as Tutu back into the fold, even if temporarily, as the history unites more than recent policies and actions have divided. At least for the moment, the political rhetoric has returned to that of the early Mandela years — of reconciliation, non-racial nation-building, and an emphasis on “the will of all people.”

Does this kind of nation-building rhetoric matter at all? Or should governments just focus on efficient service delivery? Much of my own research has led me to believe that the former can really have an impact on the latter. Whether President Zuma’s statements at internationally-observed events will actually manifest themselves into policy and practice in the coming months and years is a different story.

Mandela will miss ANC celebrations

Sad news reported this morning in BusinessDay that because of weak health, Nelson Mandela will not be able to participate in the 100th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the African National Congress (ANC). I believe he is now staying in Qunu, the village where he grew up in the Eastern Cape Province. Very depressing to contemplate what this means.