With a new president, a sense of optimism returns to South Africa

The recent palace coup within the ruling African National Congress, in which Jacob Zuma was replaced by President Cyril Ramaphosa, has brought with it a long missing sense of optimism in this country.

Cyril Ramaphosa has pledged to draw line between his leadership of ANC and scandal-ridden Zuma years

Supporters of South African President Cyril Ramaphosa sing and dance after his election by members of parliament outside the South African general assembly on Thursday in Cape Town. (Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images)

There's something unnerving about the way the clouds can steal up to cover the top of Table Mountain before spilling over the edge and slipping down into Cape Town itself, shifting the mood of the city in the time it takes for a ray or two of sunlight to shine through.

The recent palace coup within the ruling African National Congress — and so South Africa — feels a little like that. As if the now departed president Jacob Zuma had disappeared behind a magician's cloak only to be replaced by Cyril Ramaphosa in a puff of smoke and carrying with him a long missing sense of optimism in this country.

Ramaphosa was sworn in as South Africa's fifth post-apartheid president on Thursday after being voted in by the National Assembly, where the ANC has a majority, less than 24 hours after Zuma was forced to resign.

And the mood has indeed shifted.

Graduate student Athenkosi Nzala says that the change in leadership gives South Africans 'a new hope.' (Lily Martin/CBC)

"Sort of like a new hope in terms of our country moving forward," is how a young master's student at the University of Cape Town described it.

"Not just economically but in terms of issues that lie deep," Athenkosi Nzala said. "In terms of what is the legacy of Zuma in our country."

For him that's a place where many people still live in poverty, with an unemployment rate hovering around 27 per cent and double that for youth. It's also a place where Nzala sees economic influence in South Africa still lying with a white minority, no matter the government in charge.

Promise of economic revival

Ramaphosa, a 65-year-old lawyer with a background in trade union negotiations and a vast business empire of his own, is promising economic revival to South Africans and a restoration of dignity on the world stage.

He's also pledged to draw a line between his leadership of the ANC and the scandal-ridden Zuma years marked by constant allegations of graft and corruption.

People pinned everything onto one man and it just doesn't work like that.- Kerusha Govender, student

The most recent were thrown into sharp relief this week when police raided properties in Johannesburg connected to the Gupta family, accused here of "state capture."

They're long-term Zuma associates who emigrated from India now accused of influence peddling through their connections to the ex-president. One of the Gupta brothers, Ajay, is on the run from an arrest warrant.

Ramaphosa's first task, though, will be in uniting the ANC behind him ahead of a regularly scheduled election next year.

"The ANC is [still] a deeply divided organization," says author and academic Richard Calland. "That means as he looks forward in government, [Ramaphosa] will also have to look over his shoulder at the ANC to ensure that he is rebuilding the organization and taking it with him every step of the way."

That particularly applies in KwaZulu-Natal, he says, Zuma's home province. It's also where he spent millions of taxpayer dollars "upgrading security" by installing a swimming pool and a cinema at Nkandla, his private home. He was ordered to pay the money back after an investigation by South Africa's anti-corruption czar.

An atmosphere of chaos

Political science professor Zwelethu Jolobe, of the University of Cape Town, says one of the trademarks of the Zuma years was a constant turnover of ministers and chief executives within government-owned companies and ministries.

It created an atmosphere of chaos, he says, that the country is still recovering from.

There are some who say that Ramaphosa's ascendency puts right an old wrong. He was Nelson Mandela's preferred choice for a successor, or so the story goes, although he was passed over by the ANC in favour of Thabo Mbeki.

Ramaphosa's credentials are impressive: one of the negotiators who transitioned South Africa from an apartheid state to democracy and the chief shepherd of the country's constitution.

He's also considered a positive choice by international investors and the markets, the rand rising along with his political fortunes.

He's not without a blemish or two. Despite his role as a trade union leader in the 1980s, Ramaphosa ran into trouble in 2012 when he criticized striking miners as "criminals" at Marikana near Rustenburg — just before more than 30 of the strikers were shot dead by police.

Ramaphosa, who was on the board of directors at the Lonmin mine at the time, later apologized for his comments.

It's also no longer a given in South Africa that liberation credentials will translate into electoral support — at least not with the younger generation. Just look at Zuma, a former ANC intelligence chief who was imprisoned on Robben Island along with Mandela.

University of Cape Town student Kerusha Govender, 25, is skeptical that a change in leadership will lead to major changes. (Lily Martin/CBC)

"We don't owe them. The country doesn't owe them as a party," said another University of Cape Town student, 25-year-old Kerusha Govender, on the day of Ramaphosa's swearing in.

"[Zuma] was just a root of a bigger problem, and that problem is still there so I don't think there's going to be that much of a difference," she says. "People pinned everything onto one man and it just doesn't work like that."

Looming election

But in the end Ramaphosa was able to push Zuma out because ANC leaders believe Zuma's continued presence would have been too damaging in an election campaign.

And many South Africans do long for the old feeling of optimism and hope that came with Mandela. They want a little of the old magic to have rubbed off on their new president.

"Zuma had become an extraordinarily useful electoral asset for the opposition," says Calland. "So the opposition now faces a strategic challenge to refocus on a new opponent and to find different weak points in that opponent."

Political science professor Zwelethu Jolobe, of the University of Cape Town, says the Zuma years created an atmosphere of chaos in the country. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Political science professor Jolobe agrees. "I think the problem has been a crisis of opposition in the sense that opposition politics have never been able to make capital or make currency out of a divided ANC," he said.

"If you take that as a background and you bring in Ramaphosa to lead the ANC — who might not fix things in the immediate future but creates a different style and feel — that is more likely to resonate with voters."

But regardless of the ANC's fortunes, Jolobe argues, there has been a fundamental shift in South Africa during the Zuma era, and a positive one: a more robust democracy.

"We've seen a very robust and very independent judiciary. We've seen a robust press where journalists have made huge strides, asking the right questions without fear. And you've had the re-emergence of Parliament as a centre of power, of debates about accountability," he said.

"The irony of it all, though," he says with a laugh, "is that that shift would not have been present without the Zuma years."


Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.