We like our politics served neat: black or white; villains or heroes. It’s not surprising, then, that public sentiment appears to have turned sharply against President Cyril Ramaphosa, says the writer. Picture: Kopano Tlape/GCIS

South Africans started this year in a somewhat euphoric state. There was widespread elation and relief that the kleptocratic shambles of president Jacob Zuma’s years in office had ended.

The man who deposed him, Cyril Ramaphosa, confidently promised a “new dawn”. But the elation has been short-lived.

As we reach the fag-end of 2018 we can see more clearly in what state Zuma left the country. It’s an unpleasant reality that financially and morally, South Africa is bankrupt.

As revelation has followed upon revelation, the true cost of Zuma’s lost decade has become apparent. It is all much worse than almost anyone realised was possible.

Few governments in history have taken power endowed with greater reserves of goodwill - both here and offshore - than did that of Nelson Mandela in 1994.

Now, all’s gone. Slipped gradually between the fingers of Thabo Mbeki. Discarded suddenly by the feckless Zuma. Fiscally, the cupboard is bare. Morally, the nation’s standard flaps in tired tatters.

South Africa is in a dreadful state, but there is no simple solution. Contrary to his blithe promises and our naive hopes, Ramaphosa is not going to be able to readily right the ship.

We like our politics served neat: black or white; villains or heroes. It’s not surprising, then, that public sentiment appears to have turned sharply against Ramaphosa.

He is being lashed for being tardy in putting his stamp on day-to-day governance. The cabinet is still too big, as well as crammed with Zuma zombies, inept and disgraced, but still staggering about causing mayhem.

The other persistent refrain is that he has been suspiciously cautious over corruption.

Not a single politician or business person has been prosecuted and jailed, despite mountains of evidence assembled by a heroic band of investigative journalists.

The commentariat should be relieved over Ramaphosa’s apparent inertia, since when he has acted decisively, it has been disastrous. His enthusiastic cheerleading of expropriation without compensation (EWC) has left any hopes of economic recovery mired in suspicion and uncertainty.

But much of the criticism is unrealistic. Whatever the jubilation among the general public over his victory at the leadership conference, it split the party down the middle, leaving Ramaphosa incredibly vulnerable to a counter-coup. His first logical goal was simply to survive as president through to next year’s general election. The second, in those polls, to reverse the steady decline of the ANC vote.

Based on what has happened in the past 10 months, it seems likely that Ramaphosa will achieve both goals. And if he does so, it will be in no small measure because of EWC - it’s a populist issue that has kept the Zuma camp within the ANC at bay, and will undermine both the EFF’s vote on the left and the DA vote on the right.

As canny has been Ramaphosa’s use of commissions of inquiry, headed by jurists with unchallengeable credentials, to get rid of the human detritus of the Zuma era. The Augean stables of the SA Revenue Service will soon be cleared, courtesy of Judge Robert Nugent. Similarly, the Public Investment Corporation, courtesy of Judge Lex Mpati.

The evidence emerging from Justice Raymond Zondo’s state capture inquiry will make it possible soon to act against a slew of Zuma cronies. All that is still missing is a head of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) who is not just another puppet whose every decision - or indecision - is tainted by perceptions of partisanship.

Ramaphosa has that problem, too, in hand.

This week he announced that a panel of experts, drawn from the likes of the General Council of the Bar and the Human Rights Commission, would interview and then compile a shortlist of three suitable candidates.

What a break from the tawdry politics of the past. What a way of ensuring that no one who the NPA now acts against can credibly claim political victimhood.

Sheer genius. If only the clever Mr Mbeki had thought of doing that, we would have been spared the Zuma nightmare.

* William Saunderson-Meyer is a columnist with the Independent On Saturday. He is @TheJaundicedEye on Twitter.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.