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[OPINION] The disregarding president is finally gone

It’s been a watershed week in South African politics. The Zuma Years are finally, finally over. Gone is the disregarding president, the corrupt man who lied to Parliament, who repeatedly violated our Constitution and breached his oath of office. Zuma went out as he entered office - in ignominy. His briefing on Wednesday night to the press started more than half an hour late and with his trademark laugh - typically disrespectful of citizens to the very end. As he cleared his throat several times and stumbled through some of the prepared statement, it was never clear exactly where the speech would end up. It wafted between resignation and defiance.

Zuma spent much of his final press briefing talking about the importance of the Constitution in removing a president. How ironic given his 9-year assault on the Constitution, the rule of law and democratic values. Earlier in the day Zuma had commandeered the SABC for a rambling interview. There he said he had been ‘victimised’. Zuma - ever the victim. Much of it was also bitter and rancorous, but that should not surprise us. This is how Zuma led - with dishonesty, constantly sowing division and entirely in his own interests.

And so, South Africa is on a new path today, one that can only be better than the long slog of 9 years we have endured under Zuma. The ANC statement read out afterwards seemed like a eulogy for Zuma. His acolyte Jessie Duarte had to do the bidding and it was telling. Duarte talked of Zuma’s ‘legacy’ and his achievements. She did not mention an economy in tatters and an education system that is almost entirely broken and state-owned enterprises mired in corruption and chaos. She herself looked as if she had lost the proverbial million dollars. And therein lies the rub.

Cyril Ramaphosa will have a lot of cleaning up to do in the state, but he will also have to try and save the party. The ANC, along with South Africa is broken. Whether he can manage this strategic balancing act will be his first and foremost challenge.

Ramaphosa comes to Parliament on Friday with a huge reservoir of goodwill behind him. He has the opportunity to make some early gains through Cabinet appointments and sending strong signals regarding the rule of law, the supremacy of the Constitution and open government. So, what should we expect of Ramaphosa tomorrow?

Here’s a guide to the ‘Big Five’ issues the new president might wish to tackle.

#1: It’s always been about the economy, stupid!

But more than that, it is about inequality and its effects. Income inequality in South Africa is rising too. Over 12 million people live in extreme poverty and one in four South Africans go to bed hungry, according to ActionAid. StatsSA data puts the latest unemployment figure at 26.7%. That is a national crisis by any definition.

Economist Thomas Piketty’s key statistic is that 60% to 65% of South Africa’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of just 10% of the population. Of course, this group historically has been predominantly, almost exclusively, white. Piketty’s solution? To recognise the failure of BBBEE, implement a national minimum wage and accelerate land reform. Of course, this deals only peripherally with the unemployed and unemployable.

However, as former Finance Minister Trevor Manuel said, while we may agree that Piketty is right, where is the social solidarity to fix the problem?

Ramaphosa has repeatedly spoken about the revival of the compact between government, business and labour. He will need to revive Nedlac and other structures in order to reach some consensus on the economic way forward.

The ANC under Zuma has been sidetracked by opportunistic rhetoric that was largely a smokescreen for corruption. ‘Radical economic transformation’ became the code words for looting, mostly.

We heard repeated shouts about bringing down ‘white monopoly capital’, yet that seemed less about the true transformation of the economy and more about the narrow economic interests of Zuma and his associates. Ramaphosa will have to craft a clear way economic path forward within the state and communicate that effectively.

#2: State capture and corruption

At each State of the Nation Address (Sona), Zuma used to provide us with a few not-so-comforting words about the ‘fight against corruption’. They always rang hollow since he himself sat at the heart of state capture.

Ramaphosa knows that the key to economic growth and development is the effective running of state-owned enterprises. This is the reason he ordered some crucial changes at Eskom before leaving for Davos last month. But Eskom is not the only SOE that needs to be fixed. SAA, Denel, Prasa and others deserve urgent attention. Ramaphosa will need to show a firm hand early on if he is to continue the cleanup. That will mean getting rid of errant, corrupt ministers such as Public Enterprises Minister Lynne Brown. But, there have been other egregious examples of corruption such as Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini and her breaches of the Constitution and complete disregard for process in the Sassa debacle.

Ramaphosa will also need to reassure the country on Friday that the Zondo commission into state capture is pivotal to the uncovering of the corruption and that the law enforcement agencies will act without fear or favour in bringing the corrupt to book. He cannot be mealy-mouthed about it now that he has the chance to draw a definite line in the sand on issues of corruption.

#3: The securitisation of the state

Zuma always operated in the shadows, trying to form an alternative state which was unaccountable to citizens and the constitution. Who can forget the storming of Parliament by undercover policemen while Zuma laughed? And we remember the disastrous night of the signal-jamming incident at Sona in 2015. This all happened on Zuma’s watch.

And again, he laughed. There were also attempts at clamping down on open government. As the Right2Know campaign said in a statement following Zuma’s resignation, “Zuma will be remembered for the Secrecy Bill, which was at one time his hallmark legislative effort. This Secrecy Bill would have been used to cover up the secret dealings of government institutions, and criminalise the work of journalists, whistleblowers and activists who tried to bring information to the public. So great was the threat that it prompted the forming of a people's campaign, the Right2Know Campaign. As a result of tireless efforts of people from every corner of our country, the Secrecy Bill was effectively stopped: it has sat on Zuma's desk for over three years unsigned.”

The Constitution commits us to a society where there is a free flow of information, open, transparent and responsive governance. Ramaphosa must lead with a commitment to transparent governance.

#4: Race and reconciliation

If 1994 was about a ‘rainbow nation’, the racial polarisation that often happens (think Penny Sparrow, Vicki Momberg and an array of other racial slanderers) indicate just how far we have moved from Madiba’s dream of a non-racial society. Our Constitution lays the foundation for the kind of society we wish to build, one in which human dignity is central. In a country with high levels of inequality, our debate has often been divisive and brittle where wisdom and care have been required.

As a drafter of our founding document, Ramaphosa has an opportunity to make the Constitution the golden thread that must run through our society if we are to become a more just and equal one. Dialogue and thoughtfulness need to undergird our conversations about the future and the past.

#5: And perhaps linked to race and reconciliation, Ramaphosa will have to unite us with ‘That Vision Thing’. Our country desperately needs to unite behind a shared vision of who we could be and the leadership which enables prosperity. Ramaphosa has a brief window to draw us into his thinking of what an inclusive South Africa might look like. We can start afresh tomorrow with our shoulders to the wheel.

While Ramaphosa may have used the ‘velvet glove’ to navigate internal ANC politics and oust Zuma, what the Zuma years have shown us is that our South Africa’s people and its democracy are resilient. The journalists, the activists, the whistle-blowers and the judges, the writers and the artists who fearlessly took on the corrupt brought us to this inflection point. Ramaphosa alone did not effect change and he will not effect change alone in the future. Only we, the people can. The past 9 years have been painful, frustrating and tawdry, but again, we have pulled ourselves back from the brink. This really is a Country of The Second Chance.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february

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