Members of the National Assembly congratulate newly appointed President of South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa at a sitting in Parliament. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER/SUNDAY TIMES
Members of the National Assembly congratulate newly appointed President of South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa at a sitting in Parliament. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER/SUNDAY TIMES

Polling company Ipsos re-released a telling graph on Thursday in which a more or less representative sample of South Africans were asked a simple question: is the president doing a good job? It’s easy to forget now that in 2010 the level of optimism was extremely high. Former president Jacob Zuma at that stage had a 70% approval rating, higher as it happens than the proportion of the population that supported his party in the previous election.

The rating over the years plummeted, until in November last year only 25% of respondents thought he was doing "well" or "fairly well", itself not a very high bar.

President Cyril Ramaphosa enters the presidency with a strong wind in his sails. He too enters office with enormously high expectations and it’s clear South Africans are really dying for change. But as the Zuma experience shows, optimism can very quickly turn to pessimism, particularly in a country like SA where the needs are great and the resources small.

So what does Ramaphosa need to prioritise?

As a broad aim, Ramaphosa needs to get the economy moving forward. Nothing is possible without an economy that is growing at a solid pace. All of the ANC’s beloved social programmes — from economic transformation to infrastructure projects to social grants — are all dependent on economic growth, something the party itself seldom explicitly acknowledges.

The more politically acceptable and socially desirable way to talk about this is the need for more jobs. In normal circumstances, it comes down to the same thing, although sometimes it does not. But the point is that he must, in the famous words of former US president Bill Clinton, "focus like a laser-beam on the economy".

What can he do quickly to focus government on that goal? In fact, there are many things he can do quickly. First, he needs a new team, based not on a complicated political, ethnic or geographic balance but on merit. The question should not be who the candidates are, but whether they can contribute with focus and dedication on the job.

Zuma’s decline in popularity was not stemmed by surrounding himself with acolytes and "yes-men". Ultimately, his terrible choices came back to haunt him as the departments they ran slowly became embarrassments. Ramaphosa needs to be dramatic and decisive here or he will be judged harshly.

The second thing he can do quickly is to attack corruption. It is sometimes claimed that corruption might be a social problem, not necessarily an economic threat. Corruption is rampant in China, for example, and it has been the fastest-growing large economy for almost three decades. But the rampant corruption of the Zuma years has created a sour mood in business and society. It has retarded investment, suppressed business confidence and in many instances made doing business more difficult. This will require some backbone, because many within his own party may now end up as the accused in court cases and they will inevitably use their influence in the party to keep themselves out of jail.

Third, he needs to fix mining, SA’s one huge comparative advantage. The simple way to do that is to throw out mining minister Mosebenzi Zwane and with him the new draft Mining Charter. Those negotiations need to start from scratch. Mining companies have deserted this crucial sector at a furious rate, splitting off their foreign businesses partly in order to protect their shareholders from the vicissitudes and capriciousness of government mining policy. Ramaphosa is familiar with the sector and its players and he’s famously an adept negotiator. The Mining Charter needs to balance growth in the sector with transformation; neither can be ignored.

And fourth, he needs to address SA’s state-owned enterprises in an aggressive way. If South African Airways keeps making demands on the taxpayer and the government keeps supplying the airline with cash, then effectively it is subsidising the rich with cash taken from the poor. It’s more than ludicrous.

A set of fast, practical people needs to jump into the large state-owned enterprises and find ways for their balance sheets to be permanently stabilised. The fastest way to do that is to introduce private shareholders, something the ANC government has opposed for decades. But now there is no other way.