African National Congress (ANC) supporters cheer while they wait for the speech of President-elect Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa outside the ANC's headquarters in Johannesburg, on Sunday. (Wikus De Wet/AFP/Getty Images)

Just 15 months ago, South Africa’s democracy faced the gravest crisis in its 25-year history. The governing African National Congress (ANC), the party of Nelson Mandela, scrambled to oust President Jacob Zuma, whom many accused of fostering a sprawling, deep network of state corruption. So dire was the crisis that a new term entered the national lexicon — “state capture” — when those in power systematically subvert public institutions and divert public resources for political and financial gain.

So what happened in the May 8 national elections? The ANC and its reformist presidential candidate, Cyril Ramaphosa, received 58 percent of the vote. Ramaphosa, a former trade union leader and prominent ANC member, helped forge South Africa’s democratic constitution and later became a wealthy businessman. The ANC installed him as president after it drove Zuma from office in February 2018. As the elections approached, Ramaphosa was well into a cleanup he promised would bring a “new dawn” to reinfuse South African governance with the values of Mandela.

What turned things around?

ANC loyalists had the courage to replace a bad leader with a much better one — and whistleblowers and journalists risked their livelihoods to expose state capture.

As specialists in how political institutions shape the varied patterns of governance in Africa, we analyze recent events in South Africa as a fundamental stress test for the country’s democracy. In pursuing their project of state capture, Zuma and his collaborators tested the foundations of South Africa’s hard-won constitutional order. The fact that nearly all voters chose parties explicitly opposed to the Zuma legacy suggests that although democratic institutions bent, they did not break.

State capture is a deeper problem than corruption

The term “state capture” gained currency because the word “corruption” did not do justice to the sweeping efforts to divert public funds under Zuma’s watch. A plausible estimate places the cumulative costs through Zuma’s second term at over $100 billion, or roughly four months of GDP.

Initially, journalists discovered that state funds had paid for “upgrades” to Zuma’s palatial estate in his rural hometown. An official inquiry then documented endemic looting in public procurement, especially in the lucrative energy and transport sectors. An avalanche of evidence regarding kickbacks, shell companies and plastic bags full of cash followed.

State capture required short-circuiting accountability mechanisms. A common strategy was to appoint presidential loyalists, rather than competent professionals, to key positions in the cabinet, law enforcement agencies, national revenue service and state-owned enterprises. Many appointees then used their positions to enrich themselves and to conceal the misdeeds of others.

Here’s an example. When a respected finance minister rejected Zuma’s spending proposals, Zuma tried to replace him with an obscure mayor, best known for having his house burned down by disgruntled constituents. After the ANC’s leadership rebuffed the appointment, Zuma turned his attention to attacking the central bank’s independence.

Holding Zuma accountable

Opposition parties proposed several parliamentary motions to remove Zuma, but the institutional architecture of South Africa’s democracy made this difficult. Its closed-list proportional representation means the party leadership chooses individual members of Parliament, not voters. At the same time, the Constitution requires governing party members to hold their own president accountable in Parliament.

But as motions to dismiss Zuma accumulated, more ANC members came around. Parliament voted by secret ballot on the final motion, in August 2017. It fell short by three votes — meaning that at least 30 percent of ANC parliamentarians must have supported it.

Zuma’s downfall began in December 2017 at the ANC’s National Elective Conference, held every five years. He was ineligible for reelection as party president. The leading contenders were Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the former chairwoman of the African Union Commission and Zuma’s ex-wife.

Ramaphosa won a close race, and took control of the party. Zuma, meanwhile, continued to run the government. Demands from within the ANC to “recall” Zuma mounted. He resigned under duress in February 2018, and Ramaphosa replaced him as president.

Ramaphosa seeks to restore faith in democracy

Ramaphosa quickly began tackling entrenched malgovernance. He appointed several official commissions of inquiry. The media broadcast commission hearings live, publicly exposing the scale of state capture.

Ramaphosa’s rise complicated life for opposition parties, which previously gained easy popularity by attacking their common enemy, Zuma. The Democratic Alliance (DA), to the ANC’s right, and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), to its left, had led the charge against Zuma in Parliament.

Without Zuma, opposition voters’ conflicting interests, shaped by differences in race and class, became more politically salient. The rapid growth of a black middle class in recent decades has partially deracialized severe inequalities inherited from apartheid, but South Africa remains among the world’s most unequal countries.

Voters’ politics typically reflect experiences of inequality and social mobility. For example, the DA draws much support from a diverse urban middle class. Although most whites vote for the DA, most DA voters are not white. The party struggles to balance its traditional platform emphasizing race-blind opportunity with ANC-like policies of racial redress.

The EFF appeals to black South Africans who feel shut out from both models of upward mobility. The Freedom Front Plus (FF+) appeals to similar feelings of exclusion among conservative white Afrikaners.

The May 2019 results suggest wide support for Ramaphosa’s “new dawn.” But the ANC’s reduced majority and decreased turnout suggest that public trust in government will not be rebuilt on promises alone. DA support dropped slightly, from 22 percent in 2014 to 21 percent in 2019. Mirroring global trends, the politics of disaffection on left and the right gained traction: EFF support grew from 7 to 11 percent, and FF+ support grew from 0.9 to 2.5 percent.

What are the takeaways?

South Africa’s recovery from state capture continues, but its democratic institutions seem to have survived the tough tests of the Zuma years. Whether South Africans get their “new dawn,” the resilience of their democracy — and the tenaciousness of its defenders — hold lessons even for long-standing democracies that confront similar challenges.

Rod Alence is an associate professor of international relations at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Anne Pitcher is a fellow at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study in South Africa and a professor of political science and Afro-American and African studies at the University of Michigan.

Through a partnership with the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa, Alence and Pitcher have received funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York to study election-related violence and peacebuilding across Africa.