Cyril Ramaphosa’s rise to the South African presidency in 2018 generated considerable optimism that his leadership would bring a more enlightened approach to policy, both domestic and foreign. His talk of a “new dawn” and his calls for a return to the values of Nelson Mandela represented an implicit repudiation of his two immediate predecessors, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma. In the case of the latter, Ramaphosa also promised an end to the rampant corruption and state capture that characterized Zuma’s decade in office.

Human rights organizations viewed Ramaphosa’s presidency as an opportunity for a policy reset, and they encouraged him to use his leadership—as well as South Africa’s position as a nonpermanent member of the United Nations Security Council in 2019-2020 and chair of the African Union in 2020—to revive Mandela’s commitment to the protection of human rights and the expansion of democracy. Under…

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