The economy is shrinking, power cuts are at a record, unemployment is close to an all-time high, living costs have surged, towns are falling apart, and there are sporadic outbreaks of xenophobic violence.
The laundry list of challenges confronting South Africa is a massive headache for Cyril Ramaphosa heading into governing-party elections in December and a national vote in 2024.
Since taking over as president in early 2018 from Jacob Zuma, whose almost nine-year tenure was characterized by the wholesale looting of taxpayer funds, he’s struggled to turn the country and state finances around.
Critics from within his own party and the opposition accuse Ramaphosa of indecision, consulting excessively and failing to ensure the decisions that are taken are properly implemented. This week, he avoided firing members of his executive who were implicated in graft by a judicial panel that spent four years probing malfeasance during Zuma’s rule.
Former President Kgalema Motlanthe joined the chorus of criticism over how the country is being run, and warned that the African National Congress is in danger of losing its majority in the 2024 election.
“We are in a crisis,” Motlanthe said in an Oct. 22 interview in the Drakensberg mountains on the sidelines of a conference hosted by his foundation. “We are in big trouble economically, big big trouble.”
The top leadership of the ANC, which has dominated national politics since apartheid ended three decades ago, has been equally scathing in its assessments of the government’s performance and acknowledged that it risks losing the electorate’s trust.
Ramaphosa is also in a personal bind. The nation’s former spy chief, Arthur Fraser, has accused him of concealing the theft of foreign currency from his game farm in 2020, a matter that’s being looked into by the police, the graft ombudsman and lawmakers.
While the president denied wrongdoing, he’s steadfastly refused to explain what transpired, leading opposition parties to question whether he broke foreign-exchange or tax laws. Under ANC rules that he put in place, he’ll be forced to quit if he’s charged.
The ANC needs to consider the eventuality of Ramaphosa being impeached, and the implications for the party and its upcoming elections, said Thabo Mbeki, Zuma’s predecessor as president, who’s also questioned the caliber of the party’s leaders.
“We have attracted people who want to come into the ranks of the ANC and know nothing about the policies of the ANC” and are intent on stealing public resources, Mbeki said in an Oct. 22 address.
Despite all his travails, Ramaphosa remains the front-runner in the ANC’s leadership race after securing the backing of its top officials in several of the nine provinces. A clearer picture of his support will emerge in the coming weeks, as the party’s branches finalize their nominations.
Zweli Mkhize, who stepped down as health minister last year after being implicated in a tender scandal, is one likely challenger. He’s been nominated by his home province of KwaZulu-Natal, which has the largest contingent of ANC members, although he hasn’t secured backing from any other regions. He denies any wrongdoing.
Retaining control of the ANC won’t guarantee the 69-year-old Ramaphosa a second term as president, with several opinion polls showing the party will struggle to retain a national majority.
Its support slumped below 50% in last year’s municipal elections for the first time, and it lost control of several urban centers to shaky opposition coalitions, a backlash against how poorly they’ve been managed. Ongoing street protests show there’s been no letup in public anger over rampant poverty and poor government services.
“The organizational challenges of the ANC are now at a tipping point,” Sanusha Naidu, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Global Dialogue, said by phone from Cape Town. “The problems within the state and the ruling party did not happen overnight or just when Ramaphosa took office,” with many of them originating during his predecessors’ tenures, she said.
The opposition is highly fragmented, making it difficult to capitalize on the discord. The Democratic Alliance, the second-biggest party, has struggled to recruit and retain a diverse leadership, denting its appeal among the country’s Black majority, while support for the radical Economic Freedom Fighters remains concentrated among urban youth.
Vincent Magwenya, the presidency’s spokesman, defended Ramaphosa on Wednesday, pointing to the strides he had made in attracting investment, increasing electricity generation by private investors and expanding the payment of welfare grants to the poor.
The president inherited “a state crippled through corruption, state capture and a stagnant economy. The Covid-19 pandemic worsened the challenges of unemployment and poverty,” Magwenya told reporters.
“It’s important when people judge the president’s performance in office, that they do so based on facts, and not based on rumor-mongering and other misinformed perceptions.”