Cyril Ramaphosa has made uneven progress in repairing South Africa
IVY RAMAPHOSA is used to visitors. Most weeks callers will knock on the door of her home in Soweto, on the outskirts of Johannesburg. They come trying to reach her brother, Cyril, who moved here with Ivy and their family in 1963, during the apogee of apartheid. Today he makes only the occasional appearance. As President of South Africa, he is a busy man.
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Doorstepping the president is partly a sign of desperation. Despite some improvements since the advent of democracy in 1994, life for most South Africans is a struggle. More than a third are jobless (including those who have given up looking); among young people the share is a half. Around 50% of households have less than 3,000 rand ($220) to spend per month. Public services are dire: 78% of fourth-graders cannot read and understand a simple sentence, and schoolchildren occasionally drown in pit toilets, as Mr Ramaphosa mentioned in his annual State of the Nation Address on February 7th.
Little wonder, then, that some petitioners go straight to the top. Vast hopes have been placed in Mr Ramaphosa. On February 15th it will be a year since he replaced Jacob Zuma, a president under whom graft metastasised and spread throughout the state. Mr Ramaphosa, a cleaner and more competent politician, is doing his best to fight it.
It is a huge task. Mr Zuma’s cronies ransacked the state and plundered state-owned enterprises (SOEs). Mr Zuma appointed weak or crooked officials to run the very law-enforcement institutions that should have stopped them.
In the first months of last year Mr Ramaphosa replaced the boards of corrupted firms: Eskom, the power utility; Transnet, which runs railways and ports; and Denel, an arms company. He purged the cabinet of more than a dozen of Mr Zuma’s allies and replaced them with grown-ups such as Pravin Gordhan, a former finance minister now charged with sorting out the SOEs. Yet integrity at the helm has not always improved performance. Eskom, especially, remains a mess. Much of South Africa still endures blackouts.
More headway has been made in the justice system. In November Mr Ramaphosa fired Tom Moyane, who as head of the tax authority stopped his staff from pursuing fraudsters. A month later the president appointed Shamila Batohi, formerly of the International Criminal Court, as head of the National Prosecuting Authority, which had blocked investigations into Mr Zuma. Mr Ramaphosa announced further reforms to the police, the NPA and the intelligence services on February 7th.
Much of his speech was dedicated to the economy. South Africa’s GDP has barely outpaced the growth in population over the past decade. Last year the country suffered a recession for just the second time since 1994. Public debt is officially 56% of GDP, up from 28% in 2008. The real figure is higher once state firms are included.
Mr Ramaphosa has launched a flurry of initiatives to kick-start the economy. A drive to raise 1.2trn rand of investment by 2023 has earned pledges of 300bn rand (though most are only on paper). Yet until the labour market is reformed, so that firms can fire surplus or inept workers, they will be reluctant to hire. A youth project supposed to add 330,000 jobs annually created just 2,000 last year.
Mr Ramaphosa hinted at more radicalism in his speech. He pledged to cut government spending, break up Eskom, release state-owned land for development, introduce a new competition law and make it easier for tourists to get visas (previously it was ridiculously cumbersome). He vowed that South Africa would rise from 82nd out of 190 in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business rankings to the top 50.
Whether Mr Ramaphosa succeeds depends firstly on elections on May 8th. In local elections in 2016 the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), slumped to 54% of the vote. Polls suggest that this time it will win around 60%, helped by the weakness of the opposition parties.
Mr Ramaphosa’s allies say a big win would give him a mandate to clean up the state and revive the economy. But he would still face fierce opposition from his own party and its allies. After 25 years in office the ANC has become a magnet for anyone who wants to enter politics to get rich, so many party bigwigs do not want the president to clean things up. South Africa’s deputy president, David Mabuza, and the party secretary-general, Ace Magashule, are both inclined to block reform. Since Mr Ramaphosa won the party leadership in 2017 by a mere 179 votes out of more than 4,500 delegates, it would not take much for rivals to push him out.
Mr Ramaphosa’s fans note his lifetime of outfoxing opponents. As head of the National Union of Mineworkers he was a skilled negotiator. Nelson Mandela put him in charge of talks to end apartheid when he was only 39. Later, Mr Ramaphosa used his nous—and his political connections—to make a fortune in business. He is charming and ruthless. “He has the patience of a vulture,” says a friend of many decades, adding, admiringly: “He’s the most calculating person I know.”
To what end, though? Mr Ramaphosa has brought honesty and more proficiency to the presidency. But it is unclear whether this ultimate insider, who was deputy president under Mr Zuma, has the will to take on the pillars of South African life—big government, politically connected business, big labour—that have both made his career and obstruct reform. “I am an enigma,” Mr Ramaphosa once told a biographer. And so he remains.