South African President Cyril Ramaphosa leaves an African National Congress (ANC) national executive committee meeting in Johannesburg, South Africa, Monday Dec. 5, 2022. Credit: Jerome Delay / AP

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“Don’t have a couch stuffed with cash? Don’t worry, you can keep reading for free,” read the ad on the website of the ‘Daily Maverick’, a tough and sometimes very funny South African news site. President Cyril Ramaphosa’s cash-stuffed sofa has become a powerful, universally recognised meme, but it still hasn’t brought him down.

Ramaphosa was Mr. Clean, thought to be so rich that he wouldn’t need to steal. The job he sought and got in 2017 was to oust South Africa’s previous president, Jacob Zuma, and clean up the corruption.

Zuma and his cronies were spectacularly corrupt, turning the machinery of government into a cash dispenser for themselves in an operation known as ‘state capture’. Even the ruling African National Congress (ANC), which led the liberation struggle and has been in power ever since, knew that he had gone too far. They voted Zuma out, and Ramaphosa in.

Once in office, he did act against some corrupt individuals, but there was certainly not the kind of decisive cleansing of the party that his backers had hoped for. Zuma’s faction, based mainly in the Zulu-majority province of KwaZulu Natal, continued to hold senior posts and influence policy, and five years later Ramaphosa is seen by many as a disappointment.

A disappointment, but at least not a crook, so for the want of a better candidate he was still seen as a shoo-in for reelection as president of the ANC at the end of this year – which would automatically make him the ANC’s candidate for the presidency of the whole country again in the national elections in 2024.

But then came the Affair of the Overstuffed Couch. Last June, a crony of Zuma’s reported a theft to the courts – a theft of somewhere between $400,000 and $4 million which had been stuffed down the back of a sofa on Ramaphosa’s game farm in northern South Africa.

Ramaphosa did not report the theft, as he was legally obliged to. Instead, he sent the head of his bodyguard to Namibia to recover the stolen money, and said nothing about it. Maybe it wasn’t the proceeds of corruption, but at the very least he was hiding money that he should have reported and paid tax on.

No longer Mr. Clean, Ramaphosa was nevertheless chosen again as party leader and presidential candidate for 2024 at the ANC’s national conference last weekend, mainly because they had no more plausible candidate. But it was close: Ramaphosa got 2,476 votes, and the pro-corruption, pro-Zuma candidate, Zweli Mkhize, got 1,897.

How has it come to this? The ANC was once revered as the ideal model of an African liberation movement; now it’s a cesspool.

About seven years ago, when the rot was already far advanced, a friend of a friend gave me one kind of answer.

He has worked for the ANC most of his adult life, and he told me that if he had known in 1984 what South Africa would be like today, he would have been ecstatic. Apartheid was entering its last and most violent phase, and hope was very scarce.

But if he had been told what South Africa would be like now ten years later, back when apartheid ended in 1994, South Africa had its first free election, and Nelson Mandela became president, he would have been in despair. How could all those high hopes and good intentions have ended up in the cesspool?

The point he was making was that the future South Africa that would have delighted him in 1984 but appalled him in 1994 was exactly the same country. What had changed was his expectations for the country.

Just as the evil of apartheid could not survive in an Africa that was leaving colonial values behind, the high-minded idealism of the philosopher kings, Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, was bound to give way eventually to the grubby wheeling and dealing of lesser ANC members.

The ANC will almost certainly lose its majority in parliament for the first time in 2024. It will probably survive a while longer by forming various coalitions with other parties, but the entitlement will have to go. And maybe – just maybe – South Africa will be able to move on to a more normal kind of politics.

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Gwynne Dyer, Opinion columnist

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose commentary is published in 45 countries.