Learning from South Africa ‘s Emerging Arc of Political Renewal

cyril rampahosa

Jacob Zuma has now announced his resignation! In coming weeks I intend to write more about how, remarkably, South Africa has begun to break the momentum of state capture – a necessary condition for moving forward with the next generation of challenges of building a genuinely inclusive, thriving society. For now there are four aspects of South Africa’s success which I want to highlight (and use to contrast with the parallel challenges confronting the USA….. ).

The first is straightforward: the South Africa experience provides a powerful affirmation of the strengths of having in place the checks and balances which underpin constitutional democracy – including an independent judiciary; determined, high quality investigative journalism; and a robust civil society. These are, of course, also American strengths.

Second, the process demonstrates the strengths of South Africa’s political discourse — ongoing engagement across the spectrum, debate, mutual learning, and (to a striking degree) convergence around a sense of both truth and of the broader national interest. I worry deeply that none of this seems to be evident in the USA.

Third, the process has been underpinned in recent years by strong, principled leadership, committed to values forged in political struggle, and sustained courageously by officeholders in government and outside in the face of pressures to conform. (Pravin Gordhan and Nhlanhla Nene are just two of the many who have played such a role.) Such leadership has been key to enabling a process of renewal to (hopefully) take root within the ruling African National Congress. I worry deeply that, with a few honorable exceptions, very few such leaders are evident in the United States – with the gap especially stark (indeed, perhaps terrifyingly so….) among the representatives of the majority Republican Party in Congress.

Fourth is strategic patience – a sense of the ‘long game’. Certainly, there has been no shortage of expressions of outrage, and attacks on political leaders for their purported cowardice in failing to condemn the ‘latest’ outrage. But South Africa’s success has been built on a careful reading of the logic and rules of power which govern leadership selection, especially within the ruling ANC. (I note especially, without going into the details, the strategic patience of Cyril Ramaphosa and Gwede Mantashe.) In the end, the time for confronting predatory forces arrived – on the right terrain, and with the right preparation. The result is the potential for a renewal of hope.

In the South African case the relevant terrain was the contestation over the next generation of ANC leadership. In the USA, with the Republican Party seemingly hopelessly compromised, the relevant terrain will be the mid-term elections of 2018. Is the ground being equally well laid? Are the coalitions converging around what is true, around common values, a shared commitment to America’s ‘civil religion’ — around a center that can hold, that can decisively repudiate populist, predatory threats? Or are we witnessing a mutually reinforcing embrace of the politics of outrage? South Africa offers a potent, hopeful example of the power of patience.


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