Africa’s most robust and developed economy is on the cusp of an economic revival after the long-awaited change of guard at the top.
South Africa’s economy has struggled against downgrades by the ratings agencies and a flight of foreign investors in several difficult years that have left the country with miniscule growth.
The big obstacle to change was President Jacob Zuma whose unpopularity and poor management of the economy, amid clouds of corruption allegations, threatened to bury the once all powerful African National Congress (ANC). In the good times, a decade ago, when the economy was growing at a healthy 5%, the leaders of the ANC boasted they would rule until Jesus came back. The penny slowly dropped for the party faithful that if economic times got steadily harder, feeding a rising opposition, the party may struggle to rule until the end of the next elections in 2019.
Pressure for change came from even the most die-hard ANC members for Zuma to resign. He refused; the party bigwigs gave him a deadline and at the eleventh hour, just before midnight on February 14, he did so live on TV. In many ways, he had little choice; his party comrades were plotting to throw him out through a humiliating vote of no confidence in Parliament, in Cape Town, also live on TV. He would also have lost his pension, security and benefits in the process.
For a former head of intelligence, Zuma appeared strangely out of touch with what people were thinking.
“What have I done?” was his reaction to the decision by the ANC to recall him. A cursory flick through the business pages of the newspapers would have told him: Job losses and unemployment running at more than one in four; falling business confidence and tales of millions of taxpayers’ money slushing into private pockets rather than public projects.
Into the breach stepped Cyril Ramaphosa, the former deputy president who was sworn in as the country’s new leader, in Cape Town on February 15, with a promise to clean up and pep up the economy. He is seen as the business friendly president and a pragmatic negotiator with vast experience from the picket line to the boardroom.
“Issues to do with corruption, issues of how we can straighten out our state-owned enterprises and how we deal with ‘state capture’ are issues that are on our radar screen,” says Ramaphosa as he was elected as president, unopposed, in Parliament.
Many of the business leaders I have spoken to, from Davos to Johannesburg, agree that if Ramaphosa turns his words into action they will invest with confidence.
“You are going to see millions of dollars flooding into this country in the next six months,” says Gary Booysen of Rand Swiss in Johannesburg.
The markets appeared to agree and surged with the rand. The currency reached highs not seen since May 2015, the last halcyon days of the economy. Three days of madness, in December 2015, put paid to that when Zuma sacked respected finance minister, Nhanlha Nene, replaced him with rookie Des Van Rooyen the next day and him, under duress, with former finance minister Pravin Gordhan the day after. The president sacked Gordhan in March 2017 and replaced him with another rookie Malusi Gigaba – the rand and confidence plunged, as did the ratings.
Ramaphosa – a multi-millionaire who has made his money from black empowerment and shrewd business decisions – wants a legacy of being the man who helped his country out of the mire. He has deep roots in the liberation movement and anyone who knows him will tell you he would want to be remembered as the best leader of his country since Nelson Mandela.
Anyone who has their money and pension tied up in South Africa will hope that he does so.