South Africa’s “nearly” man has made it, and nearly too late. After decades at the top of the African National Congress, Cyril Ramaphosa has at last risen to the top. Naturally overshadowed by Nelson Mandela and later outmanoeuvred by Mr Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, Mr Ramaphosa nearly didn’t win the election to be his party’s leader, with the tiniest of majorities confirming his victory over Ms Zuma, former wife to President Jacob Zuma and a significant figure in her own right.

The question often asked in South Africa now is what Mr Ramaphosa will do with Mr Zuma. Although intimately linked, what they really should be asking is what Mr Ramaphosa will do with South Africa.

The new ANC president finds himself in an awkward position in more ways than one. Campaigning more or less openly against the corruption and misgovernment of the Zuma years, he ought to move swiftly to prosecute Mr Zuma on at least some of the hundreds of charges of corruption that have been laid against him (though he has not been charged with any, and denies them all).

Indeed, “corruption” is too timid a term for Mr Zuma’s activities, which are about much more than a few bribes to minor officials here and there. In South Africa they have a name for it: “state capture”, encompassing the idea of a nation being looted by its president, his family and cronies on a grand scale.

Even if a portion of the claims about the activities of the Gupta family are correct, then South Africa was indeed being systematically handed over to private interests, vast amounts of money being appropriated through crooked commercial deals, jobs for family members and the requisitioning of state facilities and machinery for the private enjoyment of that family and, presumably, others in Mr Zuma’s circle. The leak of a massive cache of emails from the Guptas revealed the extent of their penetration of the South African state, as well as how they used the British-based – and now busted and disgraced – PR firm Bell Pottinger to pursue their interests by stirring up racial tensions. They, it is alleged, openly attempted to bribe public officials and interfere in the appointment of the minister of finance (the internationally respected Pravin Gordhan was disastrously dropped by President Zuma).  

Yet Mr Ramaphosa is in no position to pursue Mr Zuma, or at least without risk. Mr Zuma remains as President until the 2019 elections, and retains control of most of the levers of the state. He has many allies still in the ANC, an increasingly riven and factional organisation. Mr Ramaphosa could choose to put pressure on Mr Zuma to quit, or use the ANC’s constitutional machinery to “recall” him, as happened with President Mbeki, but it is not certain such moves would succeed. Bloodshed in such circumstances, overlaid as the arguments are by ethnic differences, is all too possible.

Mr Ramaphosa, then, might be better off planning ways to fix South Africa’s beleaguered economy, rather than how to fix Mr Zuma. Mr Ramaphosa was supported by the business community – and, let us be frank, powerful and rich white commercial interests – precisely because he was less likely to make a grab for their assets than Ms Zuma. No one in South Africa would expect or countenance anything like the chaotic takeover of white farms that occurred in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, but many were worried that the effects on the South African economy would be much the same.

Racial justice, economic efficiency and redistribution of income and wealth in South Africa are not incompatible aims, if they are balanced and carefully pursued. If businesses are to have a larger representation of black managers and owners, this should be done in an orderly way, with the retention of whatever skills are required to make the businesses, mines and farms still run profitably for the good of all the people of South Africa. The government too needs to be run for the people, and the obscene theft of state funds by individuals and families through the process of state capture has to be ended, not just because it is simply illegal and immoral, but because it destroys economic confidence and undermines investment. The great disappointment of ANC rule has been its failure to do more for the poor, overwhelmingly black, sections of South African society; the legacy of apartheid is, at best, only partly to blame for that.

South Africa is an emerging economy with vast potential still to become an economic powerhouse for Africa. As a nation that derives so much of its living from raw materials and minerals that are produced by a relatively small number of companies and which are incestuously regulated by a state that derives much of its income from them, it is as open to high-level corruption, or “state capture”, as the likes of Russia, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria or Kazakhstan, countries with a similar reliance on natural resources.

Apartheid-era structures and laws have only helped reinforce authoritarian habits (as happened when Robert Mugabe used the self-same laws that had been used to persecute him under white rule to persecute any and all of his enemies). Today, with change in Zimbabwe and South Africa, and with a reformist government in Angola, the region comprising the Southern Africa Development Community is an opportunity for a few years of self-reinforcing strong growth. That will do more to lift Southern Africans out of poverty than nationalising companies and handing the assets over to a new elite of kleptocrats.

As it happens, South Africa, for all its problems, has a stronger foundation and spirit as a democratic state with a free press and an independent judiciary than many others. Many recall queueing for hours in the first free elections in 1994, and the years of struggle that preceded them. There was never any room for complacency, however, and the current schisms in the ANC create themselves new dangers for the country. If the future prosperity and security of the people of South Africa requires that a discreet veil is drawn over the Zuma years, and the old man is allowed to live his days out in some ill-gotten luxury, then Mr Ramaphosa, like many of the other great pragmatic leaders of the ANC, should follow the example of Mandela, and look forwards rather than focusing on the sins of the past.