South Africa's incumbent president perseveres despite party's reputation

SAFRamaphosaJohannesburg - South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has spent the run up to May 8 elections traveling from city to city, stumping for himself and his African National Congress (ANC).

What's been notable, say analysts, commentators and even voters, is that during campaign appearances, he's often missing the party entourage, typical of his predecessors.

Some believe his almost solitary appearances are possibly part of an election strategy that is banking on how much voters like Ramaphosa even as disgust for the ANC is palpable and rampant.

"I will vote for Ramaphosa," said Ndou Paulina, 38, a cleaner in Johannesburg, echoing a common sentiment: "I trust (the ANC) now that Zuma is gone, Ramaphosa is better."

South Africans, who ended apartheid 25 years ago, will vote in the first election for Ramaphosa – who took over just over a year ago from scandal-plagued Jacob Zuma – and amid a major test for the party.

So far, most recent polls show that many voters fed up with the ANC in the 2016 local elections – and who abstained from voting – are planning to return to the ballot box: They predict the ANC will get more than 55 percent of the vote.

Ramaphosa, meanwhile, has consistently polled higher than 60 percent, a reflection that voters believe he delivered on many of his promises during his first year leading the country, says Ebrahim Fakir, an analyst and director of programs at the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute in Johannesburg.

Even so, he added that the ANC needs to win more than 55 percent in order for Ramaphosa to continue his mandate.

"If the ANC falls below 55 percent, the knives are coming out for Ramaphosa," said Fakir. "He will (face) paranoia, policy volatility…There will be paralysis due to ANC conflicts impacting public institutions."

The party remains deeply divided after a fight over Zuma's successor in late 2017, when Ramaphosa took over, say analysts, as well as at odds over some of Ramaphosa's reforms.

Still, many want Ramaphosa to continue to tackle South Africa's issues. In the past year, he has won praise from many voters and the business community by appointing a new national director of public prosecutions, the top prosecutor's office, which also oversees the prosecution of public corruption that was until recently plagued by corruption itself.

He is also creating a unit within that agency to investigate corruption allegations arising from three current judicial inquiries into corruption at state agencies that he formed – a prior unit was disbanded more than a decade ago by the ANC while it was investigating President Zuma.
Many South Africans say they believe there is less corruption today than a year ago.

"Ramaphosa has managed to alleviate corruption somewhat already," said Dudu Khanyisa Risiba, 23, who works in data management. He motivates residents of this country to support small businesses. Things are way better…we need a president that we can trust and rely on. A president that thinks about his people. Now (after Zuma), we have peace."

Analysts praised some of his efforts especially his non-stop schedule of stumping for investments – from India to Saudi Arabia to China – securing pledges of billions in new investment. They also applaud him for replacing management at some state-owned companies plagued by debt, and allegations of mismanagement and corruption.

Ramaphosa says the economy is his top priority, jumpstarting growth from the low single-digits and avoiding a rating downgrade, as is security economic security for millions of South Africans living below the poverty line.

"We cannot be a nation of free people when so many still live in poverty," Ramaphosa said at a ceremony Saturday marking the anniversary of the end of Apartheid. "We need to focus all our attention and efforts on ensuring that all South Africans can equally experience the economic and social benefits of freedom."

Some believe he could have done more – especially to tackle the disfunction and corruption in the ANC over the past year. While he has fired some of Zuma's more inept ministers, he's been limited by internal squabbling within the ANC.

Ramaphosa hasn't fought the ANC's plan to appropriate land without compensation that has frightened investors. And the unemployment rate remains around 27 percent, even though last year's recession is over, and in spite of the creation of a jobs summit. He also hasn't tackled an enormous debt burden or a bloated bureaucracy. And the nation’s investment rating is on shaky ground.

Meanwhile, protests have been breaking out over the lack of jobs and services in settlements in Johannesburg and Cape Town, even as power shortages have become increasingly frequent.

"It's freaking scary this year, people don't know who to vote for…but anyone other than the ANC," said Dean Daleski, 29, a small business owner. "We all so tired of corruption. At the end of day, the ANC have been given so many opportunities to carry out the constitution but with so much mismanagement in the public domain, we have to give someone else a chance."

Those include Ramaphosa's two main rivals, Mmusi Maimane, head of the center-right Democratic Alliance, polling at 15 percent and Julius Malema, leader of the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters, predicted to win about 10 percent.

Still, most say Ramaphosa has won enough trust with the public to keep the ANC in power after May 8. The key question is by how much of a margin, because that determines what comes next.

Ivor Sarakinsky, a professor at the Wits School of Governance in Johannesburg, says that if the ANC fails to get 50 percent of the vote, populism will rise, there will be an increase in conflict over positions and authority by the different parties and the government will be unable to move forward.

"(But) an ANC victory within the 56-61 percent range will enable Ramaphosa to begin a cleanup in government – if he chooses to do so," he said.

Photo: April 27, 2019 - Makhanda, South Africa - President Cyril Ramaphosa giving a speech during South Africa's National Freedom Day celebration in Miki Yili Stadium, Makhanda.
Credit: Courtesy of the official Twitter page of the Presidency of South Africa. (04/27/19)

Story/photo published date: 05/05/19

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.
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