President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers his first state of the nation address on February 16. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER
President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers his first state of the nation address on February 16. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER

Cyril Ramaphosa’s ascension to the presidency has injected a powerful dose of optimism into the veins of society. The sense of relief is palpable as weary citizens rejoice at the news that Jacob Zuma is out of office. The Hawks’s broken wings appear to have healed overnight, with the crime busters apparently tightening the net around the Gupta criminal network.

Newly crowned President Ramaphosa’s inaugural state of the nation address further amplified the perception that the ANC has magically transformed into a paragon of morality, in which corruption will no longer be tolerated.

The atmospherics of Ramaphosa’s speech, as well as the arrests of some Gupta-linked cronies accused of stealing R220m from impoverished farmers in the Free State, certainly do represent a breath of fresh air, although it is highly suspicious that the Hawks suddenly swooped in on the Guptas on the very same day that Ramaphosa was pressuring Zuma to resign.

At least at this stage, Ramaphosa appears to be personally sincere about his desire to be a better president than Zuma. Then again, the tablet from which he read his speech would probably make for a better president than Zuma. While there is certainly no doubt that SA is better off now than it was with the Zupta cabal on the throne, the public elation that followed Ramaphosa’s anointment as the country’s latest saviour raises the disturbing possibility that South Africans have learnt absolutely nothing from the Zuma years.

While things will probably get marginally better in the short term, in the long run the bout of collective amnesia triggered by Ramaphosa’s inauguration could have disastrous consequences. The responses on Twitter to an article by the Institute of Race Relations’s Gareth van Onselen, in which he rightly criticised the content of Ramaphosa’s speech, led to an outpouring of angry criticism. People appeared incensed by Van Onselen’s supposed "negativity" for daring to point out that the state of the nation address offered very few concrete new ideas for solving the problems the party has failed to overcome for many years.

The responses serve as a powerful reminder that, with the exception of the last three years of Zuma’s rule, most South Africans have always angrily refused to engage in any real criticism of the ANC. It is precisely this unwillingness to robustly and critically examine the party’s many failures under the leadership of Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki that culminated in Zuma’s election in the first place. And only days after SA is finally rid of him, the country has apparently reverted to its default state of worshipping the leaders who gave it Zuma.

Indeed, the twittering classes seem to have already decided that on the back of Ramaphosa’s rise the ANC is all but guaranteed to secure a decisive victory in 2019’s election — and perhaps even increase its majority beyond the current 62%. Perhaps they are right. And just like that, SA’s voters would have not only absolved the ANC of all the horrors it inflicted upon them over the past decade but further entrenched the belief within the ANC that it is truly beyond all accountability.

If, after all the chaos of the Zuma years, the party is rewarded with another comfortable victory at the polls, there can be only one conclusion: voters will support the ANC no matter what crimes it commits. This message could spell doom for the country’s democracy.

Zuma was by no means the source of all corruption in the ANC. Instead, he merely perfected and built upon the culture of impunity imprinted on the party’s DNA through longstanding practices such as cadre deployment, whereby the ANC makes decisions about powerful civil service appointments not on the basis of competence but on the basis of "loyalty". Even if we overlook scandals directly linked to Zuma, such as the plunder at Nkandla and the former president’s personal role in state capture, the rest of the ANC has proven itself perfectly capable of ruining millions of lives quite independently from Zuma.

Without any help from Zuma, the ANC government in Gauteng enabled the torturous deaths of at least 144 mentally ill patients when it irregularly decided to move them — tied down on the backs of open bakkies and trucks in some cases — from the Life Esidimeni hospital to unlicensed and even nonexistent nongovernmental organisations. From what we know, Zuma was also not the one who gave the command to the police to murder 34 striking mine workers in cold blood at Marikana. Thus far, not a single ANC government apparatchik has been held truly accountable for either of these mass killings.

Other examples of state collapse that did not directly involve the Zuma cabal include the oncology crisis in KwaZulu-Natal, which has already led to the deaths of an "undisclosed" number of cancer patients. It is also not solely Zuma’s doing that, as a recent study found, 80% of grade 4 pupils in SA cannot read or that infrastructure such as water reticulation systems are failing countrywide due to a lack of upkeep.

The ANC government was perfectly capable of bringing the country’s social welfare system to the brink of collapse without any direct assistance from Zuma. It took a concerted effort by the entire government to plunge millions more people into joblessness by increasing unemployment to 28% over the past decade. It was similarly an ANC team effort that consigned an additional 2.8-million to extreme poverty over the past four years.

If Zuma hadn’t been there to hog all the headlines, any one of these other scandals alone should have been enough to make the ANC fear the wrath of voters at the ballot box in 2019. But having never got less than 62% in a national election, the party is able to simply laugh off these deadly transgressions, which guarantees that they will happen again.

In the (understandable) rush to move on, many appear unwilling to analyse why the Zuma years happened in the first place. Despite all of the noise being made about the vibrancy of SA’s democracy in the wake of his resignation, it seems ANC voters are determined not to learn the most fundamental democratic lesson of the Zuma years, namely that an unaccountable and dominant party will inevitably ride roughshod over the people, because absolute power corrupts absolutely.

More than before, a comfortable ANC victory in 2019 will confirm that the party has nothing to fear from its voters. Such failure to hold the ANC responsible at the ballot box for the damage it has wrought would be an intellectually lazy, short-sighted and profoundly dangerous mistake. Rather than encouraging a decisive break with SA’s corrupt past, the public’s apparent determination simply to forget how the ANC enabled, supported and complemented the Zupta thievery for almost a decade has only one logical conclusion: SA will inevitably see the rise of many more Zumas.

• Schreiber is a political scientist at Princeton University. He writes in his personal capacity.