A Tentative Move Toward South African Reform

Supporters of Cyril Ramaphosa celebrating in Johannesburg on Monday.

Cyril Ramaphosa, once Nelson Mandela’s choice to be his heir, was elected on Monday as leader of South Africa’s African National Congress, the country’s dominant party, and thus almost certainly will become the next president. He was distinctly the better of the two available choices, but whether he can live up to the hopes of his late mentor is a far different question.

Mr. Ramaphosa’s selection was effectively a victory for reformers in the A.N.C. and a rejection of President Jacob Zuma, whose eight-year tenure has been marked by personal and political scandals. Yet however tawdry Mr. Zuma may be, the long-governing A.N.C. must be held equally responsible for the culture of corruption, cynicism and patronage.

The party kept many of Mr. Zuma’s allies in senior slots. Under the South African system, the A.N.C.-controlled Parliament picks the president, and a divided party may not rush to force Mr. Zuma out before his term ends in 2019. Nor is it likely to make reform easy for Mr. Ramaphosa.

Like other liberation movements in southern Africa, the A.N.C. parlayed its heroic history of ousting white rulers into unchallenged rule. And like the others, most notably Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union, the monopoly on power eroded ideals while fostering a scramble for spoils.

Mr. Ramaphosa had been a key lieutenant to Mr. Mandela, but in the private sector his ties to the party no doubt helped him build a hugely successful business career. He has been largely silent about Mr. Zuma’s ethical problems and damaging policies.

Still, the 65-year-old Mr. Ramaphosa is keenly aware that a new generation of South Africans no longer enchanted by the heroic legends of the liberation struggle, along with urban and middle classes frustrated by economic stagnation and ubiquitous corruption, want change. In municipal elections last year, the A.N.C. was shocked to lose control over nearly all major urban areas.

It is a tall order for an insider to reform a system that nourished and rewarded him. But so long as the A.N.C. remains the dominant political force in South Africa, Mr. Ramaphosa represents the best chance of cleaning up the party and the government. South Africans will be keen to see whether he is worthy of the hopes his mentor placed in him.

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