Elizabeth Rikhotso (72) was part of a group of elderly women who gathered to watch President Cyril Ramaphosa cast his vote in Soweto on Wednesday. Dressed in black, she was exuberant, smiling widely as she waited outside the polling station in the autumn breeze. But,as she spoke, she grew sombre. Like many, many other South Africans, she is concerned about the lack of visible progress in the country in recent years. With joblessness at 27%,public services delivered increasingly haltingly, and corruption rampant in the public sector, poor, black South Africans feel the brunt of the state’s failures.
But Rikhotso is still confident that the ANC under its current leadership can redeem itself in government.
For her, Cyril Matamela Ramaphosa is the best we’ve got. “He is clever; he will sort this out. I see him as quiet. Everyone will be talking, talking[but] he will stay quiet and then he will sort it out. No lies, no crooks, he will just do it,” she said.
And like her, many of Rampahosa’s colleagues in Cabinet and the ANC’s national executive committee (NEC) believe he is the only person who could effectively lead South Africa right now.
“It is very simple,” says finance minister and NEC member Tito Mboweni. “He pays attention to detail, reads all the documentation, follows up on issues, and wants execution and not a postponement of decisions and implementation.”
But it is Ramaphosa’s ability to lead the deeply divided ANC that will now be under intense scrutiny. He has been described as a reformer, but questions remain unanswered about how far he can go with an ANC mired in corruption, and with its lapses in internal democracy, factionalism and intolerance. Scrutiny will now centre on how Ramaphosa forms his Cabinet, and whether incumbent ANC leaders implicated in wrongdoing will still be in government.
The discussion over the dodgy characters littering the ANC lists was a difficult one. It took place at a special NEC meeting, after the lists were submitted to the Electoral Commission of South Africa, and after a backlash from opposition parties, civil society and the public over the addition of the likes of Malusi Gigaba, Bathabile Dlamini and Nomvula Mokonyane.
In the meeting, Ramaphosa told his NEC colleagues that,while campaigning for the party, he found ordinary South Africans had a problem with the party lists. The meeting decided that the lists should be submitted to the party’s integrity commission for scrutiny.
A tradition in ANC NEC meetings is for the president’s input to come at the end of a discussion.“Most of his interventions have led to consensus decisions,” says ANC NEC member Enoch Godongwana.
ANC treasurer general Paul Mashatile says Ramaphosa takes his time with decisions and consults widely. “That’s very good leadership. As a president, you have to make difficult decisions. It is always good to take people with you. You have more power making firm decisions after you have engaged widely.”
Navigating the ANC terrain will still be a fraught task. But the party’s Northern Cape chairperson Zamani Saul, who has emerged as a serious voice for renewal in the party, believes Ramaphosa can overcome the internal fissures in the party.
“He is a leader of steel character. He doesn’t easily get dragged into negative politics … the only reason a leader would not get involved in the negative politics is simply because they have a vision that they desperately want to achieve. So, this kind of leader does not want to be entangled in all the sideshows.”
The ANC’s post-2017 Nasrec elective conference period has been characterised by such “negative politics”, so much so that it affected the party’s election campaign, in which leaders deviated from the messaging agreed upon by its NEC, but not Ramaphosa.
“He did not use the election campaign to strengthen his position in the organisation; he did not use it for any nefarious self-interest,” Saul says. “He was consistently on-message. This is difficult when you are operating in a negative environment.”
He describes how Ramaphosa asked to address all branch and regional leaders,while campaigning in the Northern Cape, ahead of a rally in which he was set to address the public. One would have expected him to use that opportunity to bolster his standing in the party given the heavily polluted environment.
“He did not do that. He stuck to the message, even with us.”
Although this marks a maturity and a quiet confidence rarely witnessed in South Africa’s political leaders, it could prove dangerous in the shark tank that is the ANC’s top leadership, with secretary general Ace Magashule actively working against the party and president.
But Saul says the reality is that leaders who are “termists” — where the primary aim of their conduct is to protect their incumbency — rarely accomplish much.
ANC NEC member and Small Business Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu says it is unfair to isolate the president because he leads a collective. She says he should not be made to look like he “belongs to some white people and not to black people”.
“I would like to see people appreciate him for who he is:a president for all South Africans,” she says.
Ramaphosa’s opponents, however, have criticised him, saying he “lacks the spine” to do what needs to be done to turn the country, and the ANC in particular, around. According to sources in the party, much of what he has accomplished in the state had “fallen in his lap” — the removal of South African Revenue Service commissioner Tom Moyane, for instance.
Ramaphosa’s biographer,professor of political studies at the University of Cape Town Anthony Butler, says his campaign for the ANC presidency reveals a much more “ruthless” politician than previously thought. Criticism from within the ANC is also centred on his continued ties to the business world, which is also linked to his family.
Ramaphosa himself has likened his leadership style to that of former president Nelson Mandela. He describes himself as an enigma, but after 14 months in office, we are somewhat closer to understanding exactly the kind of president the country can expect for the next five years.
Those who have observed his leadership style say he is statesmanlike, a visionary who is focused and trying desperately to rise above the dirty politics that have dogged the ANC over the past two decades.
“Consensus builder”, “decisive”, “principled”, “accommodative”, “a good listener”, “strict” aresome words used to describe his leadership style.
Ramaphosa revealed last year in a meeting with political reporters that he is reading about Deng Xiaoping, the former Chinese Communist Party leader credited with the restoration of China by propelling it on a path to recovery and economic pre-eminence in the late 1970s, after the cultural revolution.
But his rise above “negative politicking”or, in simple terms, his unwillingness to get into the ring and take on his opponents directly, has fuelled fears that he willbe a one-term president, or even the more hysterical view that he will not finish his first term.
Former president Zuma was a “termist” and would quickly snatch the opportunity to dive into negative politics to prop up his power base. Even building a capable state and delivering to the people he was meant to serve took a back seat.
Saulsays: “This is the fundamental difference between Ramaphosa and Zuma: Ramaphosa wants to extricate himself from that space.”
Butler predicts a two-term presidency, saying Ramaphosa has been running so far ahead of his party in the polls that it would be “perverse to remove him, even if the ANC does poorly in elections”.
“I do not think there is much prospect of him being removed from office before he has served two full terms, but whether he will be able to reshape the ANC to any significant degree is an open question,” he says.
The more critical question, says Butler, is whether the power bases of Deputy President David Mabuza and Magashule ebb away after their extraction from their provinces.
“Is Magashule more likely to serve out a full term as secretary general or a full term in prison?” he asks.
Saul says there is a way for Ramaphosa to navigate the turgid waters of ANC politics: by fulfilling the role of president of the party, as outlined in the party’s constitution. That is to be the “chief director” of the organisation and manage it politically instead of focusing all his energy solely on the state, a mistake committed by former president Thabo Mbeki.
He has to strike a balance between being chief director of the party and the head of state — whereas Mbeki was the one extreme, Zuma was on the other side of the spectrum.
Whether Ramaphosa succeeds is an open-ended question. For now, his contemporaries agree that he is the best we’ve got.