South Africa: Ramaphosa Lives to Fight Another Day

President Cyril Ramaphosa speaks at the IEC’s official announcement of election results on May 11, 2019.
22 May 2019
guest column

South Africa's May 8 general election was never in serious doubt – the ruling ANC retained a 7 percent parliamentary majority and control of eight of the country's nine provinces – although one with a paper-thin majority.

Yet it campaigned with an intensity unseen since the first, 1994, democratic election, despite having probably its smallest campaign budget ever – thanks to the damage wrought by Jacob Zuma's nine years in the presidency.

No ostentatious cavalcades of luxury German cars this year, navigated by grateful nouveau riche through the townships and suburbs to encourage votes for presidential candidate Cyril Ramaphosa; nor the now traditional, and equally grotesque, free concert of most of South Africa's rappers, in the vain hope of enticing urban youth to vote, and to vote for the ANC.

Most of the cavalcade drivers and concert attendees have abandoned the ANC. It is now forced to rely for support from the urban working class and the rural poor – many of the latter among the quarter of South Africa's 52-million people who rely on ANC-established social grants and pensions to survive – pensions and disability grants currently pegged at R1,700 a month (about US$125); child support grants at R400 (US$30).

South Africa's general elections are for both the national parliament and for provincial legislatures, on separate ballots.

The comparatively low voter turnout – 65 percent, down 7 percent from the previous general election – indicates, despite the intensity of the ANC campaign, many ANC loyalists in the urban working class will not consider switching allegiance but have yet to forgive the ANC for catastrophic Zuma years.

But enough relented to give Ramaphosa what he needed – at least in the election, and possibly where it actually matters, within the ranks of the ANC itself.

This year's 57 percent ANC majority is down from the previous general election (2014). But it is a clear 2 percent up from the ANC's worst electoral performance, in 2016 local elections, when it lost control of both the economic and political capitals, Johannesburg and Pretoria, as outraged working class ANC supporters stayed away in their hundreds of thousands.

In 2014, the populist veneer masking Zuma's increasing kleptocratic administration still help sway. By 2016 the extent of Zuma-facilitated looting of the state was becoming clear, thanks to a handful of courageous journalists, the ANC's communist allies and a group of aging ANC veterans – not to mention declining job numbers and the partial collapse of several state-owned utilities: Eskom, the state-owned the national power generator (leading to regular planned blackouts), and commuter rail utility Prasa, used mainly by black workers. All of this directly attributable to Zuma.

This year there seemed a real prospect that the ANC would lose control of Gauteng, South Africa's economic heartland province, home to a quarter of the national population and generating more than half South Africa's GDP.

This was a consequence both of the continued alienation of the black working class in the massive dormitory townships dotted around Johannesburg and Pretoria – all traditionally ANC strongholds – and of a contradiction at the heart of the ANC. As a free market-friendly, centrist party committed to improving the circumstances of the black majority, it interprets its mandate as facilitating the migration of as many as possible poor and working class South Africans into the middle classes. Once ensconced there, many class migrants duly defect to parties more directly representing their new class interests.

As the economic heartland, Gauteng has a disproportionately large middle class and has, for all 25 years of South Africa's democracy, consistently elected the ANC with a lower majorities that the other seven provinces the ANC controls.

Gauteng has never been easy for the ANC. But the Zuma presidency – his nine years in office cost the country the equivalent of almost a full annual national budget, and lopped at least R480-billion (US$33-billion) off annual GDP after 2016 – made Gauteng 2019 possibly the toughest election challenge the ANC has ever faced. Ultimately it scraped in with a one-seat majority in the 73-seat provincial legislature.

The victory gives Ramaphosa some respite from unrelenting manoeuvring to remove him from the ANC presidency he won in 2017 against Zuma's ex-wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Her candidacy was driven by intense pre-election vote rigging and -buying by Zuma's allies. They narrowly lost the party presidency, but managed to pack almost half the top decision-making structure, the national executive committee, with Zuma acolytes, and secure the powerful secretary general position for notoriously corrupt former Free State provincial premier Ace Magashule.

Both Zuma and Magashule remain committed to ensuring Ramaphosa does not see out his first full, five-year term in office, much less a second term.

Magashule's motivations appear to be primarily venal. As Free State premier, and before that as ANC chair in the province, he enriched himself and a range of political and business associates by taking control of provincial procurement structures, while ruthlessly manipulating ANC political structures in the province to ensure he was able to retain control in perpetuity.

Escalating his activities to the national stage has obvious appeal, although the bigger stage comes with a far more critical audience. The Free State is small – accounting for 4 percent of South Africa's population and 3.5 percent of its budget – and Magashule was able to limit any serious inquiry into his endeavours there by a fairly placid provincial media. Since his elevation to the national stage, he has demonstrated real discomfort at the glare of the national media spotlight – and particularly of the mainly Johannesburg-based investigative journalist corps, which has begun to scratch enthusiastically through his record in the Free State. One book focused on his apparent perfidy, "Gangster state: Unravelling Ace Magashule's web of capture", has been published since he became ANC general secretary, and several more are being written.

This is embarrassing, but has not weakened his resolve to force Ramaphosa out of the party and country presidencies – vividly demonstrated by his significant but unauthorised changes to the ANC electoral lists submitted to the electoral commission. This guarantees Zuma supporters a strong presence in the post-election parliament, and denies Ramaphosa, whose party power-base is highly contested, a power-base in the ANC parliamentary caucus.

Zuma's motives for wanting Ramaphosa out or, at the very least, hamstrung are more compelling. Having an obedient satrap in the presidency would enable him to resume his looting of the South African state, this time at one remove – he has, after all, five wives and more than 20 children to keep, all now accustomed to a life- style impossible to maintain even on a relatively comfortable presidential pension.

But he has a more pressing motive: he is already facing prosecution for corruption related to South Africa's re-equipping of its military in the late 1990s, when he was deputy president to Thabo Mbeki. As president, with access to state funds for his lawyers, he engaged in a protracted Stalingrad defence, endlessly stringing out legal processes to avoid ever having charges formally laid. He also packed the national prosecutions' office with loyalists to ensure no charges were brought – or any additional offences were investigated. But he has run out of string on the charges from the 1990s kickbacks and appeared in court last year to face corruption charges, and returned to court this week.

But more serious potential charges arise from his more recent presidential savaging and looting of the South African state and decimation of the economy. Among Ramaphosa's first acts as ANC president were to instruct Zuma to appoint a commission of inquiry into "state capture" – South African shorthand for taking control of part of the government system to facilitate looting – and then to secure Zuma's recall by the ANC as South African president.

And when Ramaphosa was sworn in to replace Zuma for the 16-month balance of his second presidential term, almost his first appointment was of a new head of national prosecutions' office, a South African whose CV included several years as legal adviser to the International Criminal Court.

These moves provide a pointer to how Ramaphosa plans to head off the challenge from Zuma, Magashule and their many allies in the ANC leader- ship and in parliament. He will work from his only certain base: in the executive.

Constitutionally, Ramaphosa's presidential authority over the executive is only minimally constrained by party-political factors: the president alone is legally responsible for appointing his Cabinet and for a range of civil service appointments – as, for example, with the head of the prosecuting authority, but also including appointment of all state departments' heads, although on these he must consult Cabinet Ministers (who, helpfully, he appoints).

He can also appoint commissions of inquiry – a right he has used to good effect: one has already inquired into and found two Zuma appointments in the national prosecutors' office "not fit and proper" to hold office. Another Ramaphosa-appointed commission, into the state-run Public Investment Corporation – its R2-trillion (US$140-billion) in assets, a mouth-watering target for Zuma-era "state capture" – has generated a powerful arsenal for use against Zuma allies inside and outside the ANC, and against Zuma himself. So too has the "state capture" commission.

The fact that Ramaphosa is necessarily based in the executive for his campaign against Zuma and Magashule has forced him to adopt due process as a political tactic. This is not a bad thing in a country exhausted by a daily diet, over the past four years, of new revelations of looting and degradation of the state.

But it does demonstrate the downside to the classical Greek truism that the wheels of justice grind exceedingly slow.

Within the ANC, both Zuma and Magashule hoped – and, evidence suggests, worked – for a poor ANC result, intending to use that to force Ramaphosa out of the ANC presidency. At least four new parties among the 48 contesting the election have links to Zuma or Magashule – most of them no-hopers, although one Zuma-aligned party has appears to have secured enough votes for two seats in parliament.

David Niddrie is a Johannesburg-based analyst and former journalist. An earlier version of this article appeared on 

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