Cyril Ramaphosa wins as uncertainty beckons for South Africa

Cyril Ramaphosa

Cyril Ramaphosa

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has just won another term as head of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) after a turbulent few weeks in which it appeared he might resign, or be ousted by his own party over an alleged corruption scandal .

But has Mr Ramaphosa emerged stronger or is he – and with him the ANC and even the national economy – on an unstoppable downward trajectory?

There was a time, some five years ago, when many South Africans seriously flirted with the belief that their country had found its savior – and that Mr Ramaphosa, a level-headed man of obvious integrity and experience, would put an end to a grim decade of corruption and economic decline.

In fact, that was Mr Ramaphosa’s own sales pitch – his sincere promise of urgent reform, of renewal, for a young democracy that knew it had lost its way.

Today, some here still believe he is a winner. After all, he has just emerged victorious, again, from his party’s blood-curdling national election conference.

And against strong headwinds, he has begun the slow process of rebuilding South Africa’s state institutions – the prosecution service, the giant utility monopolies, the tax office – that had been eroded by corruption under former President Jacob Zuma.

Now, having increased the size of his majority since he first took over the ANC in 2017, Mr Ramaphosa will finally feel safe enough to accelerate those reforms, the crooks and the deadwood and the unrepentant political enemies in his to fire a cabinet, unleash investment, transform an unequal society, and find a way to tackle rising unemployment and a failing education system.

Welcome, the wishful thinking goes to “Ramaphosa, Part Two – a President Unleashed…”

Those who believe that Ramaphosa is still the best – perhaps the only – politician in the ANC who has a chance to keep this country in balance recognize that his corruption scandal, involving a break-in and botched investigation at the president’s game farm, was mistreated by his lawyers, and certainly tarnished his reputation.

But they see it primarily as a political problem – an attack staged by his ANC rivals – rather than a fundamental crisis of integrity.

But this half-full approach of the president and of South Africa itself is under increasing pressure.

That is partly thanks to Mr. Ramaphosa himself. Leaving aside the huge gaps in his account of what happened in that corruption scandal – the money in the bank, the signs of a cover-up – even his most generous critics see him as a maddeningly cautious figure, one who seems to lack the appetite. , or courage, to confront one’s enemies head-on at a time when the political stakes are so high.

Supporters of South African President Cyril Ramaphosa celebrate after he was re-elected leader of the African National Congress (ANC) at the ANC's 55th National Conference at the National Recreation Center (NASREC) in Johannesburg on December 19, 2022.

The ANC has been in power since the end of white minority rule in 1994

He is, in many people’s eyes, the kind of guy who would take a notepad and zoom link to a knife fight.

The clearest evidence for this can be found in his own cabinet, where ministers who are openly and provocatively hostile to Ramaphosa and his agenda still keep their jobs.

The president’s loyalists say he is paralyzed by ANC rules and that his slow-moving, institution-focused approach nevertheless delivers results and exposes the superficial antics of his rivals.

Perhaps.

But tell that to millions of South Africans who are in limbo today, with businesses bankrupted by prolonged daily power cuts, as the country’s electricity system collapses under the weight of decades of mismanagement, corruption and now alleged open sabotage .

And here we come to the second major criticism of South Africa’s glass-half-full approach.

This country’s problems, the argument goes, simply cannot be solved by one man, no matter how well-intentioned.

For nearly three decades the country has been governed by the former liberation movement, the ANC, now consumed by fratricidal power struggles driven not by policy or personality issues, but by rival attitudes to corruption and looting, and the desire of powerful figures to hold accountability and avoid jail time.

Mr Ramaphosa – still more popular than other national politicians – may be able to keep the ANC in power for one more election cycle (although even that is no longer guaranteed), but the party is tired and broken, and, in the eyes of many, has urgently need a spell in the opposition.

Which brings us back to South Africa’s long, daily power cuts – the clearest evidence of the ANC’s crisis, manifested in its failure to provide enough electricity for the continent’s most developed economy.

Mr Ramaphosa has been trying to implement reforms to tap into the country’s almost unlimited supplies of renewable solar and wind energy, but – it is widely believed – he has been held back and sabotaged by forces within his own cabinet and party.

So what’s next? Can the ANC renew itself under a newfound Lord Ramaphosa, as it so often promises, and if not, will the party slide quietly towards electoral defeat?

Both options seem unlikely. A period of increasing political uncertainty beckons, ripe with opportunities for new coalitions and political movements, and fraught with grave risks for a struggling and increasingly disappointed nation.

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