President Jacob Zuma at the 54th ANC national conference in Johannesburg. Picture: REUTERS
President Jacob Zuma at the 54th ANC national conference in Johannesburg. Picture: REUTERS

It has been several years since South Africans, at the start of a new year, have had the luxury to believe the new year would be better than the old. With a new ANC president at the helm, the end of Jacob Zuma’s abusive presidency is now imminent.

While Zuma looks set to survive the first ANC national executive committee meeting since it was elected in December — now under way — he’s not likely to survive the month. When the ANC holds its January lekgotla at the end of next week, the removal of Zuma as president of the country, either voluntarily or by compulsion, will most certainly be on the agenda.

While the Zuma hardliners still have a significant presence on the national executive committee, there is a sizeable middle ground that is expected to fall in behind the leadership of the day, giving enough advantage to Cyril Ramaphosa to effect the recall.

If this fails, there is the longer route of Parliament, where a vote of no confidence will be sure to succeed this time.

Urgent changes will also have to be made in leadership positions in the criminal justice sector, including new heads for the directorate of public prosecutions and crime intelligence

Zuma’s weakness was underlined this week by his volte-face on Tuesday in which he finally complied with the remedial action of the public protector of a year ago to appoint a judicial commission of inquiry into state capture, headed by a judge selected by Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng. Zuma’s stance since October 2016, when the report was issued, has made it clear that this was not a step he would ever have wanted to take.

Zuma’s departure will bring a battered citizenry and economy some immediate relief. Most importantly, we can expect to see urgent change in the political leadership in the priority areas of the Treasury and the departments of public enterprises, energy, mineral resources and public service. Urgent changes will also have to be made in leadership positions in the criminal justice sector, including new heads for the directorate of public prosecutions and crime intelligence.

The rand and business have already begun to respond positively to Ramaphosa’s victory. These changes, which can be made quickly and relatively easily, will be critical to providing the economy with its crucial missing ingredient: confidence. It will be critical that the maximum benefit is made of the moment to tell a new story about SA to investors and, if possible, to save SA from a February downgrade.

But saving SA is only one of Ramaphosa’s top priorities. The other is to salvage the unity of the ANC to win elections in 2019. These two objectives are in many respects in active opposition to one another.

It is likely that Ramaphosa — known for his political patience and natural default towards a negotiated settlement — will want to keep many of the former Zuma Cabinet in an effort to heal the divide between the two camps.

He has already begun efforts to develop unity in KwaZulu-Natal by bringing the two sides together in a united team to manage the province. Some among the existing Cabinet are tolerable; many, though, are odious.

Investigations of those suspected of grand corruption, of which there is now abundant evidence in the public domain, must proceed without fear or favour. These involve a good number of individuals sitting in the national executive, the collective with which Ramaphosa will have to negotiate the new conditions for ANC unity.

If Ramaphosa’s commitment to the prosecution of his fellow ANC leaders is anything less than unshakeable, the public will quickly see through it. The story of a new, clean ANC will not have the legs to make it into 2019.

At the same time those who might finally now face justice for their looting will fight back hard and dirty. In the process, they will have no regard for the consequences for the ANC and
its unity.

So while we can enjoy for a short while the warm glow of a Ramaphosa victory and the rapture of a Zuma exit, things for Ramaphosa could get rocky rather quickly.