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Cyril Ramaphosa arrives with his wife to deliver his State of the Nation address, February 16 (©NASIEF MANIE/AFP/Getty Images)

Relief at the end of the corrupt and illiberal regime of Jacob Zuma has quickly given place here in South Africa to swooning adulation for the new President, Cyril Ramaphosa. South African political culture is very much leader-focused and the recent experience of democracy means that it is also naive. One realises that electorates get more sophisticated with time and even understand a bit of comparative history. That is how you get an electorate smart enough to reject the massively popular Churchill for the rather anonymous Attlee because the latter was better suited to the work of postwar reconstruction. No such scepticism exists in this case. Ramaphosa has known how to press all the right buttons and has led an extended charm offensive, piling on the rhetoric of consultation and conciliation with a trowel. The idea — clearly successful — has been to position himself as the man who negotiated the country’s first democratic constitution, who will bring the same skills to dealing with the country’s problems now, and fulfilling the promise of Nelson Mandela. This is heady stuff and were an election to be held today he would clearly win by a mile.

In large part this is due to sheer relief at the end of Zuma’s blundering and stealing and the way in which he allowed the state’s capture by a gangster elite. But this is a good moment to look at South Africa’s leadership under the ANC since democracy was won in 1994. Mandela was a dear old man, greatly loved, and his message of racial conciliation and forgiveness was just what the country needed. In every other way he was a hopeless president. He never understood or did the job, instead spending all his time with pop stars, sportsmen and the mega-rich. He neither presided over the cabinet nor even bothered to stay right through its meetings. There was simply a hole in the middle of government where there needed to be hands-on executive leadership. Corruption began to flower under his administration, particularly in the infamous arms deal of 1999.

Next came Thabo Mbeki, in many respects more capable but given to stealthy behind-the-arras elimination of possible rivals and to grandiose visions of himself as the leader not just of Africa but of the entire Third World. He also used nakedly racist rhetoric against whites. His combination of paranoia and grandiosity led him to believe that the anti-retroviral drugs used to treat the HIV-positive were just a scheme by Big Pharma and that he knew better than medical science. Accordingly, he deprived the HIV-positive  of antiretroviral drugs (ARVs). A later Harvard study showed he had caused 300,000-365,000 unnecessary deaths, almost all Africans — a true genocide and at least 20 times more than had died for political reasons under apartheid. Under him corruption became structural as part of the vast ANC patronage network. Even when cadres were found stealing, no one was punished. Finally, there was Zuma, under whom a corrupt mafia took over the entire state. The president, a semi-literate, warned people against witches, told them the ancestors would be angry if they didn’t vote for him and also said that God supported the ANC. He made up policy without the least regard for legality or affordability and seemed quite ignorant of the constitution.
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July 27th, 2018
8:07 PM
I regret things are worse than RWJ reports. The corruption and sheer incompetence at every level, has even led the majority of municipalities to be totally dysfunctional and bankrupt. Those residents up-to-date with their rates and taxes and utility bills often find the water or electricity cut off to the entire community because their local council hasn't paid for the electricity or water to the bulk supplier - but they collected the money from the residents which they have stolen or misappropriated. The money set aside for maintenance of infrastructure such as sewage works etc has 'vanished' and they then allow raw sewage to flow into the rivers causing major pollution, the fish and birds die and even the trees along the banks die (eg. Vaal river) Everybody suffers, Black, White, rich and poor. Cry the beloved country.

July 1st, 2018
12:07 PM
The SACP must be over the moon. Heroic effort brings great reward. Tough on the ordinary folk. 'Twas ever thus.

May 3rd, 2018
7:05 AM
I have never read a more accurate analysis of South Africa, and indeed, Africa as a whole. If a South African leader who can implement the structural changes required is not elected within the next five years, SA will be doomed to the same future as most other African countries, especially Zimbabwe. What a pity this will be.

Michael Coulter
April 19th, 2018
9:04 PM
Most insightful. Thanks for writing this.

April 19th, 2018
8:04 AM
In response to "Anonymous" 16 April 9.04 "Apartheid regime caused a much greater genocide. Its rule resulted in millions of black South Africans, mainly infants and children, dying of starvation because they were deprived of food" I would dearly like to know where and when these death occurred

Keith Phillips
April 19th, 2018
3:04 AM
I sadden at this having experienced the Zimbabwean collapse. I fear that the starvation that is coming to SA will eclipse anything that has happened in the past as the outflow of capital and capability in the sector collapses food production. Forget the past. Rescue the future.

Rob Bass
April 18th, 2018
5:04 AM
RW Johnson has summarised the South African situation perfectly. It's impossible for me to challenge any one of his statements. Life for all SA inhabitants, except the black elite, will become more difficult in future. Dependent upon one's age & energy level, it is either a country with unbounded opportunity or one from which those capable should emigrate sooner rather than later.

April 17th, 2018
4:04 PM
Very balanced but not touching on Malena and his extremists. On land expropriation : This will certainly lead to famine as it has done in the rest of Africa. When you combine that with the well meaning Australians that want to speed up visas for white South African farmers, it certainly will happen. HOWEVER, the well meaning Australians( I love them) should keep in mind that this will just antagonize the SA Government and they now “have to be right” and stick to their policies just as the Apartheid regime did when sanctions were imposed. Angry people do not make sane decisions. Angry people break and destroy without pain initially to themselves. Have you ever hurt yourself in a moment of anger?....Did you feel it? Afterwards, possibly when you saw the blood! What we need is diplomacy and communication, showing respect and gradually educating so that we can arrive at a common, sane, reality. Don’t vent your anger and antagonize. It serves no purpose. And. Also, don’t antagonize inderctly by offering help via the media. Wage a private war in private and keep the sensationalist media out of it, please! P.B.

April 16th, 2018
9:04 PM
While Thabo Mbeki deprived black South Africans of retroviral drugs the Apartheid regime caused a much greater genocide. Its rule resulted in millions of black South Africans, mainly infants and children, dying of starvation because they were deprived of food.

April 13th, 2018
3:04 PM
There is much truth in this piece but it gives white South Africans a free pass.They have white Messiah Syndrome deeply embedded—most senior positions in companies are held by whites not because they are more competent but because most whites have refused to change and embrace meritocracy. The decisions are made in secret white laager committees—so nothing has changed from Johan Anthoniszoon "Jan" van Riebeeck’s days.

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