“South Africa’s Lost Decade,” the Economist called it. Before being shoved from power last month, President Jacob Zuma enriched himself and his patrons while presiding over economic disaster for his citizens. The burden of public debt nearly doubled over the Zuma years. More than one in three working-age South Africans is jobless. Unemployed men turn to crime, tainting South Africa as one of the most unsafe countries on earth, worse than El Salvador, Honduras, or Pakistan.
No wonder the elevation of a new president has excited so much hope among international well-wishers. That new president, Cyril Ramaphosa, was described thus by a former British Cabinet secretary: “By far the most impressive South African I ever met in a decade of working with the black independent trade unions that grew into the force that effectively destroyed apartheid from within.” Ramaphosa is widely reputed to have been Nelson Mandela’s preferred successor back when Mandela retired from office in 1999.
Zuma by contrast is a rustic, clownish figure. His polygamy, while permitted under South African law, offends urban sensibilities. For much of the growing urban middle class, polygamy is something to watch on reality TV or to be policed by courts—not to welcome into the office of the presidency of a country constitutionally committed to gender equality. Zuma lavished millions in public funds upon his personal compound near his birth village. Zuma polled poorly among the urban middle class of all races, who inflicted upon his African National Congress a stinging series of defeats in local elections in metropolitan areas. Zuma returned the disdain, most famously in a 2012 speech in which he complained about middle-class blacks who “become too clever.” In his words, “They become the most eloquent in criticizing themselves about their own traditions and everything.”