Cyrial Ramaphosa and Jacob Zuma"The blame for Zuma’s cloudy future can be laid at the door of South Africa’s deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa." [photos: Ramaphosa and Zuma on Facebook]

South African president Jacob Zuma is in an invidious position. He is desperately unpopular even with the African National Congress’s (ANC) traditional support base, faces imminent prosecution for fraud and corruption, is just over a year away from the end of his term of office, and has just seen his replacement leadership slate defeated in last month’s elections for the ANC leadership.

The blame for Zuma’s cloudy future can be laid at the door of South Africa’s (SA) deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa. In defeating the Zuma faction for the party leadership he has virtually assured himself of the SA presidency after the 2019 elections and has made himself enormously popular with ordinary voters by promising an end to the corruption and fraud perpetrated by an axis of Zuma cronies, which led to the ‘state capture’ of various national entities and agencies.

But the only thing worse than being an unpopular leader stuck on the conveyor belt to the dumping grounds of history, is to be a wildly popular new leader, weighed down by impossible expectations.

After years of currency attrition, the rand ticked up 9% within days of Ramaphosa’s victory. Business leaders waxed enthusiastic, articulating their hopes that the pattern of successive downgrades by the international ratings agencies will now come to an end. Ramaphosa cannot even go for a jog on the beachfront without being mobbed by well-wishers. The country has not had such a flush of enthusiasm since the so-called ‘rainbow moment’ when former president Nelson Mandela took the oath of office as the first president of a democratic SA, a country once more a member of the family of nations after half a century of ostracism because of its race policies.

It is not going to be that simple, however. Ramaphosa—a canny former trade union leader who helped negotiate the terms of the surrender of white power and now a billionaire businessman—triumphed in the leadership tussle against Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the former wife of the president, by the slimmest of margins.

He won by a narrow 179-vote margin out of the 4,776 delegates and the 80-person national executive committee of the ANC is split down the middle. The only basis of Ramaphosa’s power, until he actually becomes president of SA and not only the party, lies in the ANC’s oft-stated principle that there cannot be two centres of power and that the party presidency takes precedence.

The Dlamini-Zuma faction, seen to be sympathetic of the state capture axis around Zuma, campaigned on a platform of ‘radical economic transformation’. This populist ideology blames ‘white monopoly capital’ for all of SA’s woes and remains vaguely defined, except around a commitment of expropriation, without compensation, of white agricultural land. It is an indication of the divided nature of the ANC that the conference voted in favour of this policy, albeit that Ramaphosa is insisting that this will not be a ‘smash and grab’ operation.

There are a number of challenges, in terms of public perception, that Ramaphosa has to meet. Firstly, there is the issue of whether Zuma will serve out his term of office until the 2019 elections, or whether he will be recalled, as was the fate of Zuma’s predecessor, former president Thabo Mbeki. Secondly, he has to end the prevarication and evasion of the Zuma administration around appointing a credible judge to oversee the commission of inquiry into the theft of state assets, as was ordered by the former Public Protector and re-affirmed by the Constitutional Court. Thirdly, he has to act decisively against corruption.