On October 15, The Economist published an article reporting on its October 13 interview of South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, In the interview, President Ramaphosa – fully aware of the impatience that big business and the general public in South Africans have with the pace of change after former President Jacob Zuma was forced from office – likened the state of affairs to a scene in the World War II movie Force 10 from Navarone. In that scene, Allied saboteurs are initially disappointed that the charges they exploded to blow up a dam did not immediately result in the dam’s collapse. The team’s demolitions expert, however, assures them that the explosion fatally compromised the dam’s structural integrity. In President Ramaphosa’s retelling, “Once the fuse has been lit, there is no going back.”
For President Ramaphosa, as the Economist correspondent commented,
that fuse is the National Prosecuting Authority of South Africa [NPA], one of several institutions he has sought to revive after their evisceration by Mr Zuma. The spectacular results people want may take time, but the process Mr Ramaphosa has set in motion “is irrevocable”, he says. Arrests will happen.
President Ramaphosa, however, was careful to temper expectations about the speed with which the fuse would burn. As he told The Economist, “’People are asking when are you going to arrest people? When are you going to put people into jail?’ But it is not his job to arrest people, he argues, correctly. It is to ‘strengthen the institutions that must do their work’.” When asked whether law enforcement would “be able to go after powerful people,” such as African National Congress Secretary-General Ace Magashule, who is widely considered to be deeply involved in corruption, President Ramaphosa carefully replied, “Once the institutions are strengthened, they should be able to go after anybody—including the president.”
President Ramaphosa was also cautious about committing to other specific measures to address the numerous challenges facing South Africa, including its economic growth rate, “horrifically high unemployment,” and flawed educational system. In the face of these challenges, he admitted that “’It’s a difficult one. It’s a tough job…being the president of South Africa at this time…I wish had come in when the economy was better’.”
N.B.: One reason for President Ramaphosa’s cautionary notes regarding anti-corruption efforts is the sheer magnitude of the corruption that pervaded the Zuma administration, when, as one writer termed it, “the government’s law enforcement arm become as ineffective as a gangrenous limb.” In an October 14 speech, he reported that corruption under Zuma likely cost South Africa more than R500 billion ($34 billion). Another likely reason is the knowledge that the person at the center of that institutionalized corruption, Zuma, is so far succeeding in delaying the start of his long-delayed corruption trial – so to speak, lengthening the fuse that the NPA only recently relit.
Nonetheless, it is not merely desirable, but necessary, that the NPA and the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture show progress over the next few months in their pursuit of corruption, if President Ramaphosa’s promises of reform are to gain credibility.