Last Sunday heralded the promise of real political change in France and South Africa. Tony Leon analyses the parallels and differences

There’s a pessimistic French expression Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose, which translates as  the more things change, the more they stay the same. 

Two unrelated political events exactly one week ago will- depending on both your viewpoint and how the events they trigger play out – either confirm or invalidate that aphorism.

First, in France itself, an apparent electoral earthquake erupted on Sunday evening when the results of the first round of the French presidential election were announced.

For the first time since 1958 when Charles de Gaulle inaugurated the modern French Republic both the traditional conservative and socialist parties  were unceremoniously bundled out of the contest for the final round  on 7 May.

The candidate who finished first in last Sunday’s contest, Emmanuel Macron famously won the first round in the first election in which he has ever participated. At just 39, though married to a woman –his former school teacher – twenty-four years his senior, he is on course to become in two weeks’ time the youngest president of France. He could also invigorate a sclerotic Europe.

Even more remarkable than both his electoral inexperience and his exotic marital arrangement, is the fact that in a country where the hand of tradition rests heavily on political formations, Macron essentially does not have a political party.

He self-created just one year ago, his En March! Movement which upended the sixty year left-right duopoly of French power.

The only person left standing in way of  Macron’s triumphal march into the Elysee Palace is far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen who finished a close second last week and so goes forward with him into the final round. Since most of the other candidates have thrown their weight behind Macron, the opinion polls suggest he is heavily favoured to win the ultimate prize.

Of course a lot of qualifications can be added in to the apparent breeze of youthful change which a likely Macron win suggests.

Though not of the traditional, or any, political establishment, Macron himself, elite educated, a successful banker and one-time political protégé of outgoing French president Francois Hollande, is a poster boy for the status quo.

His vague political promise of economic reform sits alongside a deep commitment to the European Union project. Still, in a continent roiled by populist forces there now appears to be a pushback against the extremes registered in the Brexit vote last year or the tides which the angry nationalists and Islamaphobes  such as Le Pen hoped to surf to electoral success.

The debate about whether the angry voices and votes of the pessimists – those left behind by the forces of globalization and most at risk to immigrant job seekers – have been stilled will rage on for a while yet.

But perhaps it is not so much a question of over -analyzing ‘the abstract nouns of politics –populism, globalism and elitism ‘. That, at any rate is the interesting view of Financial Times writer Janan Ganesh.

In a column this week he suggested ‘the lesson lies in the man himself’. Instead of losing ourselves by over analyzing trends, he suggests that ‘the most important variable in politics, the ultimate determinant of electoral outcomes –is the individual quality of the candidate.’ Unless the age is one of extremes, Ganesh posits that ‘there is no ideological zeitgeist too strong for a good politician to buck.’

This brings us to other political event, though far more local, which occurred last Sunday. The long-awaited campaign arrival or coming out party of the man who would be the president of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa.

Given the arcane, essentially false, protocols of the ruling ANC, every wannabe presidential candidate has to contrive not to be doing what is glaringly obvious to even the most politically innocent among us: campaigning for the top job without  declaring to be doing so. Hence, every occasion –from funeral services to memorial lectures, becomes an electoral husting by other means. Except of course there is nothing remotely politically innocent about Ramaphosa.

And, as has been widely commented, his Chris Hani memorial address last week was not only a no-holds barred personal declaration of intent; it was, more interestingly, an unblushing analysis of everything that has gone wrong with the ruling party and its project of transforming South Africa. He attacked the culture of pervasive personal greed, patronage, gate keeping, vote buying and disunity. He explicitly stated that continuing down this path was the scree slope to electoral loss and unmooring the ANC form both its principles and essential purpose.

Although careful to claim that the deceased Chris Hani disaparaged such tendencies, he implicitly declared that no living person associated with ‘private individuals who exercise undue influence over state appointments and procurement decisions’ could rescue either party or country from the current road to drift. Score that against Jacob Zuma, his former wife and Saxonwold’s most infamous residents.

To borrow Janan  Ganesh’s recent analysis on the power of individual leadership overcoming that Marxist idea of the ‘motive forces of history’, improving on  the baleful legacy and poor leadership of Jacob Zuma might not be a big ask. One cynic suggested recently that ‘any one of 20 names plucked at random from the Johannesburg telephone directory would make a better president than Jacob Zuma.’

Rampahosa was front of mind for me recently as I was preparing a lecture overseas on South Africa’s democratic transition, aptly to be delivered on Freedom Day, 27 April. Although he is shy about claiming his crowning achievement, the constitution itself, anyone who participated in that ‘rollercoaster revolution’ will  attest to his pre-eminence in it. Sadly, Ramaphosa’s coyness on this document is not because of self-effacement, but precisely because the compromises essential to its successful achievement are seen by some  today as  a sell out to the forces of ‘white monopoly capital’ et al .

But while he may lack the courage to claim his own achievement, there is something else far more significant from those helter-skelter days of the early 1990’s in which Ramaphosa held the ring.

In his speech last Sunday he stated that the crisis in the ANC is its most significant since 1994.

But this is not new territory. When the ANC held its first conference in 33 years inside South Africa in July 1991 the situation was – in the words of the able chronicler of those times Patti Waldmeir – ‘desperate’. Outgoing party secretary general Alfred Nzo was as forthright about the crisis back then as Ramaphosa is today.  He told his party: “We lack enterprise, creativity, and initiative.” Tellingly, he added, “We appear very happy to be pigeon holed within the confines of populist rhetoric and cliché. “ And that was a full 26 years before the bogeyman of ‘white monopoly capital’ and ‘radical economic transformation ‘ entered the party lexicon.

Waldmeir’s book of that era Anatomy of a Miracle then picks up the thread. She records: “ The same (ANC) conference which bemoaned the ANC’s malaise also took the first steps to cure it. The movement elected a dynamic new secretary-general, Cyril Ramaphosa head of the National Union of Mineworkers, who had spent a decade honing his skills as a tough negotiator…His brand of tough pragmatism was perfect for the task ahead: putting the ANC on the offensive.”

Two and a half decades later, like an old prize fighter returning to the ring, the questions remain for Ramaphosa to answer . Can he do it? Will he win? Or as the French will soon ask of their new president, “will the change be just more of the same?”

But a Rampahosa victory  in the upcoming ANC contest should be feared by two very different groups here at home: any member of the extended Zuma family and any leader of an opposition party.

• Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London. @TonyLeonSA.