- - Thursday, February 14, 2019

JOHANNESBURG — Exactly one year ago, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa mounted the stage in parliament Feb. 15, 2018 and told the nation that things were going to change.

The message, after nine disruptive and scandal-plagued years under former President Jacob Zuma, was basic: The economy needed to be fixed. Public services and the rule of law must be strengthened. Business, especially small business, must be nurtured.

And corruption, particularly within the president’s long-ruling African National Congress, had to be addressed at the root and branch.

A year later, many South Africans see the glass is half-full, but the half that is empty could be the bigger worry in the days and months ahead.

Mr. Ramaphosa, a successful businessman who was deputy president under Mr. Zuma for four years, is receiving largely positive reviews for moving forward on the economy and corruption, but many also say he could have done more — especially to tackle the dysfunction and corruption inside the ANC.

And with national elections rapidly approaching in May, Mr. Ramaphosa finds his personal popularity if higher than that of the party he leads.

“Voters are happy with President Ramaphosa. The public is on his side,” said Ebrahim Fakir, an analyst and director of programs at the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute in Johannesburg. “He has managed to deliver on most his promises except reducing the size of a bloated government … and other cost-cutting measures pertaining to running the government.”

But, the analyst added, “there are still problems in the ANC, and because of the 10-year decline in levels of trust [among investors], it’s going to take longer to kick-start the economy.”

The president “has brought honesty and more proficiency to the presidency,” the British newsmagazine The Economist wrote this week in summing up Mr. Ramaphosa’s first year.

“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 labor — that have both made his career and obstruct reform.”

In the past year, Mr. Ramaphosa has shaken up and strengthened some public institutions. For example, he recently appointed a new national director of public prosecutions, the top prosecutor’s office, an office which also oversees the public corruption cases but that was until recently plagued by corruption itself.

Many South Africans say they believe there is less corruption today than a year ago, improving the country’s overall image.

“The exit of Zuma from the presidency and the introduction of Ramaphosa has had a positive effect on the country: The economy has had its ups and downs, but corruption, which was Zuma’s biggest problem, has gone down,” said Tshegofatso Balerileng, 24, a university student in Johannesburg.

“During Ramaphosa’s term, we saw the introduction of the Zondo inquiry which exposed high profile members of Parliament,” he added, referring to one of the commissions investigating corruption. “It did a lot of damage to the country … but Ramaphosa did well [to set it up]. Corruption is still present, but we are heading in the right direction.”

Pushed to do more

Even so, some say much more reform is needed. The United States, Britain, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland sent a joint memorandum to Mr. Ramaphosa warning that foreign investment was at risk unless the country takes stronger action against those guilty of corruption, according to The Sunday Times, a local daily.

“There must be clear, unqualified and manifest political commitment to the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary and to honest and ethical business practices,” the memo said.

That has shaken the president who a year ago told the nation that he wanted to jump-start an economy growing at a low-single-digit pace and bring in billions of dollars in foreign investment.

Analysts have praised some of his efforts, especially his non-stop schedule of stumping for investments — from India to Saudi Arabia to China — and for replacing management at some state-owned companies plagued by debt and allegations of mismanagement. Last week, the president announced plans to split the struggling state-owned power company Eskom into three separate entities, an action opposed by many within the ANC.

Even so, he hasn’t tackled the ANC’s plan to appropriate land without compensation that has frightened foreign investors. And the unemployment rate remains stubbornly high at around 27 percent, even though last year’s recession is over.

“He got us out of a technical recession, but growth numbers are still too low,” Mr. Fakir said. “He is dancing around the land expropriation [bill].”

Mr. Ramaphosa says the economy is his top priority, and has worked hard to head off a damaging downgrade of the country’s credit rating.

“We are undaunted by the considerable difficulties we have yet to overcome,” the president told parliament in his State of the Nation address last week, a speech which heavily focused on jobs and the economy. “Above everything else, we must get our economy working again.”

Overall, most political observers say he has made enough progress on his promises in his first 12 months to keep the ANC in power after May’s elections.

“By our calculations, Ramaphosa has achieved 17 of the 26 key promises he made last February,” according to The Daily Maverick, a local news outlet. “Give him a B+ for trying to deliver on his promises.”

Still, some voters said the jury is out on their new president.

“A year ago, I was caught up in the euphoria of Ramaphosa being president, now I feel pretty indifferent, disillusioned and uninspired,” said Heidi Wasserman, an accountant in Johannesburg.

“I had high hopes for Ramaphosa,” she added. “We all hope that he can deliver on what he promised … because we are all feeling disappointed.”

Mr. Balerileng, though, said addressing South Africa’s problems and the legacy of the Zuma era will take time.

“Things are slowly but surely getting better,” he said. “Rome was not built in a day and South Africa won’t be fixed in a day either. He has a long way to go, but so far it is going OK.”

Critics say the president still has his work cut out for him, not so much from political opponents as from his nominal political base.

“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,” The Economist noted.

“He has constraints regarding what he can do in the party,” Mr. Fakir added, referring to the ANC. “He can’t clean up the state because of the internal factionalism and corruption [within the party]. He can save the ANC or he can save society, he can’t save both.”

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