Cyril Ramaphosa’s ascent to South Africa’s presidency four years ago was greeted with real optimism. His predecessor Jacob Zuma’s disastrous rule had been characterised by corruption and repeated assaults on the country’s institutions, as well as soaring inequality, unemployment and violent crime. South Africans hoped Mr Ramaphosa could clean up the ruling ANC and deliver for ordinary citizens.
That was never going to be an easy task, and dimming hopes have faded rapidly over the past month. First, a former spy chief close to Mr Zuma declared that Mr Ramaphosa had kept millions of dollars stuffed in sofa cushions at his farm, and did not inform authorities fully when they were stolen. (Mr Ramaphosa says the sums were much smaller and came from selling game.) Shortly afterwards, the final report of the Zondo commission into state capture revealed how billions of dollars had been siphoned off under Mr Zuma, but also asked why Mr Ramaphosa did not do more to tackle the issue when, as deputy president, “he surely had the responsibility to do so”. Critics say that as president, his rhetoric about rooting out corruption has not been matched by action.
Then came the deaths of 22 young people in a nightclub in the Eastern Cape, and last weekend’s spate of gun attacks, including the killing of 15 people in a tavern near Johannesburg. All this comes against a backdrop of soaring food prices, hitting the poor hardest; a month of nationwide power cuts of up to 12 hours daily; and the broader struggle to recover from Covid’s ravages.
To many, these problems are not coincidental, but look like part of a broader crisis of governance. The ANC’s origins as a liberation movement, and the understanding that many problems are rooted in apartheid’s legacy, have ensured it the kind of support that another party would have lost long ago. But those at the top now seem too preoccupied with its internal struggles (or, in some cases, their own prosperity) to pull together a fraying state and society. Its inability to even keep the lights on is telling; the failure to embrace renewables, in a country of year-round sunshine, reflects the party’s deep links to the mining sector.
Some believe that directly electing presidents would empower voters to back an individual, rather than being bound by the ANC’s choice, and might give presidents more authority to tackle problems. The counter-argument is that it would mean they are less accountable and could encourage the worst kind of populism.
In any case, change is inevitable as ANC support continues to decline – a process that will accelerate if it decides to ditch Mr Ramaphosa as leader at the end of this year. The party has already lost control of key cities, and in last autumn’s local elections dipped below 50% for the first time in South Africa’s democratic history. The prospect of coalition government grows closer. Optimists think an influx of ideas and energy, plus the sharp reminder of political mortality for the ANC, might just turn things around. The danger is that the fracturing of power might make it even harder to address South Africa’s mammoth challenges.
July 14, 2022 at 11:23PM Editorial