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Political and economic demons return to haunt Ramaphosa

Jun 11 2018 09:29
Daniel Silke

President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses the audience during the 100th anniversary celebrations of the Afrikanerbond at Rhebokskloof Wine Estate on June 07, 2018 in Wellington. (Gallo/Netwerk24)

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Durban last week provided a glimpse of an emerging coalition of forces working to undermine President Cyril Ramaphosa.

And if you thought the Democratic Alliance had issues, some of the potential fallout here could make the opposition’s problems seem like the proverbial Sunday school picnic.

Paramilitary dancers, Supra Mahumapelo, Black First Land First (BLF), Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) and a host of other beneficiaries of patronage and protection under former president Jacob Zuma’s rule displayed their support not only for the legally embattled ex-first citizen, but also for an alternative discourse on both policy and governance in the country.

Using Zuma's trial as a conduit for discontent, the motley crew of Ramaphosa dissidents were seemingly laying the foundation for an alternative political discourse within the ANC, at least for the immediate future as the 2019 election looms.

It was a reflection of deep disgruntlement with the reforms undertaken by President Ramaphosa to clean house within most state-owned enterprises, undo state capture deals and untangle nefarious deep, state-related business deals.

Ramaphosa the reformer  is now at the centre of an emerging fight-back by those who previously rode on the political and business coattails of Zuma.

And when you face that level of insecurity, you make a move.

We are now seeing this beyond the confines of the already volatile KwaZulu-Natal to Supra’s North West - where he remains ANC chair - to the Free State, where suspended Dihlabeng Municipality mayor Lindiwe Makhalema was not shy to articulate her opposition to Ramaphosa.

Anti-Ramaphosa rhetoric 

The anti-Ramaphosa rhetoric is couched in support for Zuma, who is seen as a conduit for discontent. Those backing Zuma see him as their front-of-house figurehead, and symbolic of what is wrong with the new power brokers. 

However, the issue does not just rest just on Zuma and the undoing of his associated patronage network. The discontents are taking an increasingly radical tone on economic policy. This includes motivating for the illegal occupation of land, as BLF starts to provide a populist platform for the larger grouping.

The seeds of a cohesive message from the informal Zuma coalition forces are being planted. And it is at odds with Ramaphosa’s more nuanced approach on land expropriation, which is now less likely to include a constitutional change.

In the short term, the discontents will seek to undermine the ANC from within. They will do this by vigorously defending their support for the party, while simultaneously articulating an alternative narrative – one which they hope will find greater traction as Ramaphosa struggles to get a grip on the economy in the run-up to the 2019 election.

Despite the dismal South African GDP figures this last week, Ramaphosa remains the darling of the investor community and the middle classes, who relate well to his measured, moderate and motivational message.

But on the ground, in the dusty backyards of informal settlements, there is little cheer from commuters facing further transport price hikes as a result of the triple burden of fuel taxes, rising oil process and a weak currency.

There is little cheer for those coughing up more and more for electricity bills, weekly food purchases and healthcare or for those unable to enter formal employment.

So while the Zuma discontents have their own more narrow reasons for supporting the former president, Ramaphosa faces a problem in the homes of millions of South Africans.

If he cannot get a handle on South Africa's economic malaise, he runs the danger of the Zuma discontents finding a more fertile ground for their message among those who want to like Ramaphosa, but see little improvement on the ground to justify it.

While conjecture like this may be just that, the last few local government by-elections give us some indication that President Ramaphosa is not translating his message of a ‘new dawn’ into electoral support. Only last week, in wards in Mpumalanga and the North West, ANC support levels dropped by between 20% to 30%.

While voters may be voting against the dismal state of service delivery in these areas, the ANC has been unable to rely on the Ramaphosa factor to shore up its vote. Only in the Western Cape has the ANC seen electoral gains.

In rural South Africa, the new president – and his message of an economic turnaround -  appears not to be resonating well with the ANC's traditional support base. 

This should be highly concerning for the ANC. It is not yet winning the hearts and minds of its voters.

With economic progress delayed again as a result of poor economic data, voters are increasingly being asked to provide Ramaphosa with a ‘leap of faith’ vote, one that gives him a mandate in the absence of real economic turnaround on the ground.

This is exacerbated by a more combative trade union environment.  And these tensions may create the ultimate tension of President Ramaphosa being internally sabotaged as he moves to secure a critical election victory in 2019.

With Ramaphosa always vulnerable to the poisoned chalice bequeathed to him by Jacob Zuma, the discontents will seek to weaken the president and the best way for them would be to see him struggle at the polls. After all, Ramaphosa still does not have a mandate and would be even more vulnerable if he cannot get the ANC safely over the 50% mark next year.

While Ramaphosa cannot be defeated within the national executive commitee and related structures over the next year, his non-performance at the polls is his real Achilles' heel.

And a deteriorating economic environment - coupled with intra-party factionalism and security concerns - does not help. The current levels of destabilizstion within KZN also add to Ramaphosa’s problems in securing a strong victory come next year.

President Ramaphosa then – ironically – is succeeding in keeping the middle classes relatively on board. But in his own backyard, economic and internecine political distress threaten to undermine this. Ramaphosa’s opponents know they have leverage here, and are beginning to play their hand.

It does point to a more unstable election year – one in which Ramaphosa may begin to realise that he has at least as many friends outside the ANC as he does within. And that can make for further political realignments in future.

*Daniel Silke is director of the Political Futures Consultancy and is a noted keynote speaker and commentator. Views expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielSilke or visit his website.

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