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Taking down corruption

April 24, 2018 | Expert Insights

South Africa’s new President Cyril Ramaphosa has noted that one of his main agendas for the country moving forward is to address corruption. The second goal is to improve its struggling economy.


Cyril Ramaphosa became engaged with political activism while still in university. His activities at the South African Students Organisation (SASO) and the Black People's Convention (BPC) resulted in him being detained in solitary confinement for eleven months in 1974. He was booked under Section 6 of the Terrorism Act, for organising pro-Frelimo rallies. In the 1980s, he began to actively participate in the anti-apartheid movement.

In 1991, he became the head of the negotiation team of the ANC, in negotiating the end of apartheid with the National Party government. Following the first fully democratic elections in 1994, Ramaphosa became a Member of Parliament. He was favored by Nelson Mandela to be his successor as President for South Africa. He had impressed Mandela as the ANC's Chief Negotiator during South Africa's transition to democracy. He also built up the biggest and most powerful trade union in South Africa—the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).

However, Ramaphosa’s ascent to power was not without its own set of controversies. Even though he was never indicted for corruption, his business dealings were often criticized. Controversial business dealings include acting as Chairperson for the MTN Group during the MTN Irancell scandal.

Since 2014, he has served as the country’s deputy president and second in command to President Jacob Zuma. In December 2017, Zuma was voted out of the leadership position at the ANC due to multiple scandals that involved him. Zuma was accused of improper dealings with Indian-born businessmen - the Gupta Brothers. Ramaphosa was elected as the President of the ANC as a result of this. He has presented himself as a reformer and anti-corruption fighter.

Corruption in Africa

Nearly 75 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa are estimated to have paid a bribe in 2015 – some to escape punishment by the police or courts, but many forced to pay to get access to the basic services that they desperately need. José Ugaz, Chair, Transparency International has spoken about widespread corruption in the continent noting, “Corruption creates and increases poverty and exclusion. While corrupt individuals with political power enjoy a lavish life, millions of Africans are deprived of their basic needs like food, health, education, housing, access to clean water and sanitation.”


After Zuma stepped down amidst a cloud of controversy, Ramaphosa was sworn in as the President. Ramaphosa, in a short speech right afterward vowed to tackle endemic graft in South Africa. “Issues to do with corruption, issues of how we can straighten out our state-owned enterprises and how we deal with ‘state capture’ are issues that are on our radar screen,” he said, in a reference to improper influence over government institutions, ministers and state-owned businesses by Zuma’s associates.

In an exclusive interview with Financial Times, Ramaphosa has spoken up for the first time about how he envisions the future of South Africa. In the interview, he notes that he realized that there was something wrong with the nation’s polity during 2017. He stated, “We saw that something was wrong, horribly wrong. When we were hitting rock bottom, we needed to say something so that we could begin to recover and claw our way back.” He then added, “That’s the past. We must now look to the future.”

Among the main agendas for the new leader is reviving South Africa’s struggling economy as well as boosting foreign investment. “I’m approaching this with a private sector lens . . . Our industrial base has shrunk quite a lot, [but] we can boost that.” Ramaphosa believes that problems with the economy, the unemployment rates and land issues within South Africa will be addressed if the nation approaches it with inclusivity.              “This is almost a global trend now,” he says. “You must have inclusive growth. You can’t make profits out of a community; you must make profits with the community.” He recalls an arrangement he helped negotiate when he was chairman of Mondi, the paper group, through which those who lived around the paper mill benefited economically from the land on which they were living. “Let’s find a win-win solution,” he says.

Another main goal that he has taken upon himself is to address corruption in politics. In fact, he has revealed that people who are currently part of the ruling party themselves could be implicated in the near future. “There will be leaders, people within the ANC who will be caught up in the web of state capture,” Ramaphosa says. “And when they are, they must be accountable . . . It will ferret a lot of things out.” 

Meanwhile, the controversy regarding the Indian-born South African businessmen (the Gupta family) has not died out in the nation. In March 2018, Indian tax authorities conducted raids on property owned by the South African Gupta business family on property the family owns in India.


Our assessment is that corruption in the African continent is expansive and deters the development of the region. The struggles of South Africa in the present day mirrors the problems that exist in India. There are many parallels between the two nations – both are former British colonies and fought for their freedom. The two nations were also led by leaders who chose the path of non violence to address social evils (Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi). Both nations are currently grappling with various levels of corruption in both civil society and the government. Corruption cannot be for sure tackled by an advocacy for populism.