South Africa under Ramaphosa: What it means for Kenya

Friday January 12 2018

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa is the new

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa is the new African National Congress President. AFP PHOTO | GLYN KIRK 

More by this Author

South Africa’s 54th African National Congress (ANC) conference is now water under the bridge, with business mogul-cum-state Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa as the new party President. What are the implications for Kenya, Africa and the world?

Unless dynamics change drastically, Ramaphosa is poised to assume state presidency after the June 2019 General Election. Subject to ANC political developments, Ramaphosa could indeed become state president earlier.

For instance, President Jacob Zuma could resign or be recalled by the ANC. For now, South Africa is in a state of ambivalence — referred to as “two centres of power” — in that Ramaphosa is the party President while Zuma remains the state president, posing diplomatic challenges.


The “incomplete” transition from Zuma to Ramaphosa era poses challenges for African and global leaders as well as businesses. Those who cosy up to Ramaphosa risk attracting the ire of Zuma as long as he remains South Africa’s diplomat-in-chief — at least in the short term.

But those who bet on Ramaphosa would score in terms of creating rapport with the would-be South African president.

Assuming that Ramaphosa will have to wait until June 2019 to become president, there is an 18-month hiatus during which foreign entities will have to navigate between the ANC power and the state power, not to mention the tricky balance of power within the ANC itself.

Perhaps in keeping with diplomatic protocol, no head of government openly congratulated Ramaphosa on his election. It can be speculated that a number of African and world leaders may have used backdoor channels to salute Ramaphosa, mindful not to upset the incumbent Zuma.

The exception is Namibian President Hage Geingob, whose felicitations towards Ramaphosa were on behalf of the ruling party, Swapo.


The other political leader to have lauded Ramaphosa is Raila Odinga, leader of Kenya’s opposition coalition, Nasa. This was a move as loaded as it was strategic, given the suggested proximity between Odinga and Ramaphosa.

The subtle implication would be that if Odinga is close to Ramaphosa, then, the Kenyatta administration is not close to him and, therefore, a loser in his election — at least for now.

It is probable that Kenya’s foreign policy honchos will be mulling strategies of engagement with South Africa under Ramaphosa. On the other hand, Ramaphosa will have to make choices in his engagement with the divided Kenyan political class.

In a nutshell, Kenya-South Africa relations will likely remain in a grey area for some time to come. This would generally apply to other countries. Indeed, it will be recalled that Ramaphosa’s entreaties to serve as a mediator in the Kenyan post-election violence of 2007-2008 was snubbed by then President Mwai Kibaki’s administration.

But there has been a mending of fences lately, with Ramaphosa travelling to Kenya in June 2015 to apologise to the Kenyan public after xenophobic attacks in South Africa in April 2015.

In his speech as the new ANC leader, Ramaphosa did not mention Africa. Deciphering Ramaphosa’s African policy will, therefore, have to wait for the dust to settle. However, the role that Ramaphosa gives to at least two fellow South African leaders will be closely watched.


These are Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Thabo Mbeki. Dlamini-Zuma left her position as chairperson of the African Union to contest the ANC presidency while Mbeki is credited with charting the Africa Union course in the early 2000s but remains an active envoy and mediator on the continent.

Notably, Ramaphosa and Mbeki jostled for the presidency in the 1990s, with the former clinching the position.

It will be interesting to see if Ramaphosa taps Dlamini-Zuma’s and Mbeki’s experience in matters Africa when/if he rises to the ultimate position of state president. If he does, South Africa will likely retain its huge influence in African affairs as Dlamini-Zuma and Mbeki would use their combined experience to advance the country’s interests.

Ramaphosa is known as a strategist and conciliator. One of the key accolades in his career is his steering of the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa), which contributed to the writing of a new constitution for South Africa, a tricky process that effectively ended apartheid.

But more significantly, he has interacted with African affairs not just as Deputy President but also as a mediator in places such as South Sudan.

South Africa is the most advanced African nation in terms of the quality of its economy (even though Nigeria is the biggest in nominal GDP terms). However, the South African economy has been beset by a technical recession in recent times, with economic growth hovering below one per cent.


Thus, the elevation of Ramaphosa into the pole position of ANC President simultaneously attracts interest on the back of the possibility that he will propel the country into economic growth.

Indeed, the South African rand rallied to an all-time-high as markets endorsed his win. This has direct implications for Africa. If the economy turns the corner of prosperity under Ramaphosa’s watch, the likelihood is that South African companies will be buoyed enough to extend their reach into the continent.

Also, Ramaphosa campaigned on a business and investments ticket.

This suggests that pragmatic economic diplomacy with South African businesses at the forefront will underpin his policy towards Africa.

If businesses in some African countries have been feeling the heat of South African companies making their way north, then, the businesses should brace themselves for even stiffer competition.

The upside, however, is that South African investments in African countries would be a source of foreign direct investment along with benefits such as creation of jobs. On the whole, it is unlikely that Ramaphosa will pursue an altruistic foreign policy agenda as Mbeki did under the African Renaissance banner, or Zuma under the foreign policy of Ubuntu (African humanism).


Rather, Ramaphosa is likely to bring to his African and global diplomacy the same pragmatic corporate savvy that enabled him to build a business empire at home.

South Africa is the most integrated into the global supply chains, a factor that has propelled it into global geopolitics, with membership in elite multilateral entities such as the G2O and the BRICS.

Under President Zuma, South Africa is seen to have been more inclined towards emerging powers, especially China, with relations with the West fraying, in relative terms. Pundits believe that Ramaphosa will engage the West a little more robustly while maintaining relations with the emerging economies.

Indeed, Ramaphosa’s corporate profile is in large measure due to interests in companies with links to Western capitals, although he has engaged countries such as China in his deputy president portfolio. A bellwether of the anticipated rapprochement with the West can be read in the many positive commentaries from Western media and think tanks on his election.

In the final analysis, Africans and the world will be watching as

The author is a senior lecturer at University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa [email protected]