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.

Legal Resource Centre challenges S. African Secrecy Bill

George Bizos defended Nelson Mandela and other ANC luminaries during the Rivonia trials of the early 1960s. Now, he is putting forth a challenge to the so-called “secrecy bill,” authored by the current ANC government. Bizos, who works in the constitutional litigation unit of the Legal Resources Centre (LRC), argues that the bill contradicts the constitution’s guarantee of citizens’ right to information (see M&G).

The ANC sullies its reputation by continuing to consider this piece of legislation.

South Africa won’t nationalize mines

The specter of Zimbabwe’s failed state often looms large for (white) South Africans. Fears of nationalization of productive industries, land takeovers, etc. came to the fore especially after the election of Jacob Zuma.

Well, this week, the mineral resources minister reiterated that the ANC has no plans to nationalize the mines, and will maintain pragmatic policies for the benefit of the economy. Rather, and I think quite correctly, the government is interested in regulation of safety issues, especially in the wake of several recent fatalities.

from BuaNews

If the ANC is able to hold the line, resisting populist pressures to nationalize — for example, as expressed by the recently ousted youth leader, Julius Malema — it will have taken a major step in the direction of good governance.

Governments tend to be judged for what they do, but in this case, what they are not doing seems to be more important.

Robust debate about secrecy bill in South Africa

As I wrote about last week, a proposed secrecy bill has generated strong reactions from various sectors of SA society, concerned about the threat to free speech and the potential silencing of whistleblowers. That the ANC’s two major alliance partners — the South African Community Party and the labor federation, COSATU — have come out publicly on opposite sides of this debate suggests at least that democratic deliberation remains vibrant.

ANC wins, of course, but more competitive election

Champagne flows as Zuma kicks off ANC’s ruling party – News – Mail & Guardian Online.

I will try to write more about the elections next week, when all of the results are in. But the ANC, of course, won a majority of the councils and seats around the country. Although the Nelson Mandela municipality had seemed in play, the ANC won it. The DA claimed victory only in Cape Town – the one metro that does not have a black majority. That said, it does seem, anecdotally, that race played somewhat less of a role in this election, as many voters focused on service delivery, at least rhetorically. But that will be a hot question to consider in the next few months.

In any case, it looks to have been a free and fair election, vigorously contested, with at least some attention to serious issues that face people’s lives. Apparently, Donald Trump stayed out of the fray.

ANC may lose the Port Elizabeth Metro (Nelson Mandela Bay)

Battle of the Bay – In The Paper – Mail & Guardian Online. The Mail and Guardian is reporting that the ANC may lose the major Eastern Cape metro – Nelson Mandela Bay. When my research team visited Nelson Mandela in 2009, we were unable to complete our survey of municipal councilors because of tense intra-party conflicts and suspicions of loyalty, and apparently that trend has persisted. It is very possible that we will see a DA-COPE coalition if the ANC fails to get a majority.

Elections debate spirals out of control in Makana Municipality

In anticipation of tomorrow’s local elections in South Africa, I am going to post a few items today about the campaigns in various localities, particularly from the provinces where I have spent time in the past few years (Eastern Cape, Western Cape and Gauteng).

When I traveled with several students to the Eastern Cape during the summer of 2009, we found lots of party in-fighting within ANC municipalities, and varied levels of support for the breakaway COPE party. We spent a fair bit of time in Makana municipality, which is centered in Grahamstown (home of Rhodes University).

The excellent newspaper, Grocott’s mail, tried to host a debate in Makana’s Joza township last week, but reports that it was plagued with disruptions: Elections debate spirals out of control | Grocott’s Mail Online | Grahamstown News.

In that municipality in 2009 we observed “democracy in action,” during several municipal meetings and issues were debated and sometimes thoughtfully considered, but we also saw instances of this type of “vigorous” and raucous politics crowding out thoughtful deliberation. The ANC may lose some seats, but is not likely to lose control of the municipality. Hopefully, the opposition pressure will lead to better performance rather than simply stronger rhetoric.

Why South Africa’s upcoming local elections matter

In just nine days, South Africans will return to the polls to vote for several thousand local councilors throughout the country. At first blush, this might seem a singularly mundane event. But consider a few facts: First off, South Africa is one of the continent’s few relatively stable democracies, having had a series of free and fair elections and two presidential turnovers since 1994. Every election sets something of a bar for what democracy might be in South Africa, and elsewhere in Africa. While Nigeria’s recent election was considered a fair one, it was also marred by episodes of post-election violence. And while there are no reports of violence in South Africa, increased police presence in certain areas is a response to perceived voter intimidation.

Second, the responsibility for “service delivery,” which includes vital outputs like water, electricity, sanitation, and community development more generally have been delegated to local governments. While the country is among the wealthier middle-income countries, huge inequalities persist, and large swaths of the country continue to be marred by truly unpleasant living conditions. If the poor are going to use their vote and the democratic process to improve the environment in which they live, surely the best near-term prospects are through local government.

Third, and I don’t want to over-state this, the political future of the country could pivot a bit on the fate of these elections. In particular, the Democratic Alliance (DA) is giving the ruling African National Congress (ANC) a run for its money in a few key areas including in the economic powerhouse province, Gauteng. The big question is whether voters will be able to actually remove poorly performing ANC councilors or, as is too often the case in post-liberation countries, the idiom of liberation begins to overshadow the mandate to govern well, and people are stuck with lousy, self-serving leaders. Polls are showing that at least in a few places, voters are inclined for some change. And if they act on this, the next question will be to what extent the ANC will take that message as a prompt for reform or political revenge.

Elections are scheduled for May 18. A guide is available from the Mail and Guardian

South Africa: A ruling party at odds with itself | The Economist

At this point, not too much in the recent Economist article about the ANC was surprising. Nonetheless, the fact that Trevor Manuel, a longtime ANC loyalist, who served as South Africa’s finance minister for 13 years, and now as minister for national planning, said, on the record that racism has “infiltrated the highest echelons of government”… was pretty depressing.  (South Africa: A ruling party at odds with itself | The Economist)

Amdist its infighting, and increasing levels of citizen frustration, the ANC is likely to lose some ground in the upcoming local elections, which I plan to write about soon.