Is Cyril on a slow train to nowhere?

A president stuck in a train. A country stuck in a rut.

The metaphor could not be more apt. And, for a political leader whose core value proposition is that he is the man to lead South Africa out of the rut, it could not be more poignant.

Cyril Ramaphosa’s hours-long delayed trip on a crowded commuter train on Monday made it on to the BBC — as a story about an election campaign cock-up.

Ramaphosa said heads would roll at the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa, the beleaguered state-owned enterprise that is supposed to run the public railway network and has been ravaged by state capture. But, in Britain, it would have been the campaign managers who would be anxiously shielding their necks.

Even with the president on board, Prasa was apparently powerless to get the train from A to B on time.

At least Ramaphosa’s unfortunate commuter experience demonstrated a commendable interest in people’s daily lives — but he also exposed himself to the hard evidence of governmental failure.

This is where the metaphor bites. Here is a sincere head of government with a serious reform programme, which in little over a year has put in place many of the essential building blocks necessary for it to succeed. But it may still fail, simply because the mountain to climb is now so high.

The spectacle of the slow train to nowhere may not have been good, but it was nowhere as bad as the ANC candidate list that includes so many of the rotten eggs from the Jacob Zuma years.

The list shows such contempt for the electorate, such an extreme sense of complacency that, regardless of how badly they have been treated — by threatening the delivery of social grants that stand between them and greater poverty (Bathabile Dlamini), threatening the supply of water and sanitation (Nomvula Mokonyane), threatening the supply of energy
to keep the economy going and protect the few jobs that do exist (Mosebenzi Zwane and Malusi Gigaba), and by lying to the courts and trying to capture the treasury (Gigaba again) — the party expects voters to see past the list and vote ANC nevertheless.

What the list reveals about the balance of power in the ANC is equally significant.

It shows that the fightback continues; that the Zuma state-capture nationalists are alive and well and still enjoying sufficient support in the grimy inner machinations of
the ruling party, not only to be nominated but also with enough political support to get them placed back on the top end of the ANC’s electoral list.

The ANC’s divided wider leadership is playing fast and loose with not just its electoral majority but also with Ramaphosa’s reform agenda — and this is not to mention Eskom’s inconvenient contribution to the sense of economic decline and state failure.

The bleak conclusion is that there are many in the ANC who will risk reducing the party’s majority to serve their own interests and who know that a reduced majority will weaken Ramaphosa’s power and standing in the party, to the point where he could be challenged and even ousted.

It is far too soon to write off the ANC’s campaign, however stuttering its start has been and however overly dependent on Ramaphosa it may now be. I have always likened ANC campaigning, certainly at national election time, to a Boeing 747 taking off; it takes an awfully long time to trundle down the runway but, when it eventually gathers enough speed to take off, and by the time it is airborne, it is a big and powerful machine.

That take-off moment usually only occurs four weeks before the election. There are just under seven to go, so there is still time for the ANC to gain momentum — and I suspect that it will, confounding those pundits who are prematurely predicting that the ANC majority will fall as low as 55%, just within the danger zone for Ramaphosa.

The ANC could still attain the threshold figure of 60%, which will secure Ramaphosa’s grip and ensure that, when he faces the Thatcherite moment of truth that I argued in these pages recently may well be inevitable, he can win the battles necessary to answer in the affirmative the pivotal question: “Who runs the country?”

Interestingly, there are progressive critics in the broader ANC movement — usually in the South African Communist Party or a left-leaning faction of the ruling party, and usually veterans, or at least “traditionalists” — who for reasons very different to those lodged in the devious minds of the anti-Ramaphosa nationalist brigade believe the ANC not only deserves but also needs to get a bloody nose if it is ever to regain its lost integrity.

They subscribe to the idea that another big majority for the ANC will simply serve to embolden the looters and state capturers.

If this dark scenario does take place, Ramaphosa will soon be ousted and replaced, if not by deputy leader DD Mabuza then by some other ghastly figure from the party’scorrupt faction. And we will all be dragged down, along with the reform programme and the turnaround strategy.

But, for those of you haunted by this political spectre, be reminded that, although it is true that the ANC has recalled two sitting presidents from office (Thabo Mbeki in 2008 and Zuma in 2018), both were no longer president of the ANC at the time.

This is an important consideration. Removing an ANC president from Luthuli House is a lot harder than removing them from the Union Buildings, even with as delicate a balance of power in the party’s national executive committee as Ramaphosa has to contend with.

The test for this and for Ramaphosa’s hold on power will come as soon as the middle of next year at the ANC’s national general council, a nonelective but nonetheless important mid-term barometer of politics in the party.

But back to the immediate term and the May elections. What is so extraordinary is that, despite the travails of the ruling party and the litany of failure of the “nine wasted years”, the opposition seem unable to exploit the opportunity.

Ramaphosa is compelled to run a surreally schizophrenic campaign in which he laments governmental failures as if they have been committed by another party and campaigns vigorously on a reform ticket as if he were the leader of an opposition party challenging a flagging ruling party.

It’s as if, without the Democratic Alliance offering a compelling alternative vision, and which seems to be suffering from its own split personality over significant issues such as black economic empowerment, Ramaphosa is filling the void.

But much will turn on the registration and turnout figures. A smaller number of eligible voters have registered than in previous elections (slightly less than 75% now, compared with 77% for the local government election in 2016 and 80% at the last national one in 2014). Convert those percentages into actual numbers and it is startling: nine million eligible voters have declined to register.

That’s a vast untapped market for all the parties, but probably most significantly for the Economic Freedom Fighters. Its leader, Julius Malema, must be greatly disappointed that only 50% of eligible voters aged 18 to 29 have registered, a figure that correlates closely with the current level of youth unemployment.

This is worrying for the longer-term resilience of South Africa’s democracy. In the short term, notwithstanding the faddish advantages of modern technology and telecommunications, on May 8 nearly everything will depend on that most old-fashioned golden rule of election campaigns — get your vote out on the day!

Stayaways cost the ANC dearly in 2016. In 2019, turnout will have an even greater effect on the outcome.

Richard Calland is an associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town and a partner in the political risk consultancy, The Paternoster Group

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Richard Calland
Richard Calland is an associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town and a founding partner of the Paternoster Group.

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