When Cyril Ramaphosa was propelled into the presidency, it allowed the ANC to maintain its parliamentary majority and govern South Africa alone.
An undertaking to deal with state capture, clean up the civil service, mend floundering state-owned enterprises and create jobs secured the ANC 57.5 % of the vote nationally.
Ahead of the poll, Ramaphosa, who had replaced Jacob Zuma when he was recalled in February 2018, appeared to have a handle on things, promising that sparks would fly should he be elected, rather than appointed.
Ramaphosa made a lively start, with a cull of Cabinet deadwood and a big drive for investment and job creation. Fresh appointments in the criminal justice system pointed towards results in terms of cleaning up the debris of “nine wasted years” under his predecessor.
Seven months after the May elections, the head of state’s promise of a New Dawn has lost some of its shine in the face of job losses, the collapse of state-owned enterprises and an apparent inability to bring those responsible for the looting of state coffers to book. Tainted ministers have been recycled as parliamentary committee chairs, or appointed to the boards of lower profile state entities. The criminal justice system has been pitifully slow to act, despite the almost daily naming of names and revelations of malfeasance at the Zondo inquiry into state capture, the inquiry into impropriety at the Public Investment Corporation, as well as other public inquiries.
But Ramaphosa has had to try to keep the sun rising while a faction in the party is working against him.
Somehow, Ramaphosa is regularly “surprised and shocked” (or is that “‘shocked and surprised”) at the depth of the various crises gripping the nation.
More shocks and surprises may lie in store for him next year when the governing party holds its mid-term national general council (NGC) meeting. Although the meeting is meant to be a mid-term policy review, it is an important precursor to the party’s 2022 elective conference.
Forces loyal to Zuma, led by secretary general Ace Magashule, have staged a fightback in the provinces and in the party’s national executive committee, effectively negating many of the advances made by Ramaphosa and his supporters since his election at Nasrec in December 2017.
The party has been unable to hold a series of crucial elective conferences in a number of provinces and regions — including Mpumalanga and North West, where infighting has forced the ANC to place its structures under administration. As a result, elective meetings — the outcome of which are central to what lies ahead for Ramaphosa — have been put off until next year.
A realignment of forces and shifting alliances in the ANC may also provide Ramaphosa with more shocks, both at the elective conferences, the national general council meeting and, ultimately, in 2022.
Magashule’s faction in the ANC, which controls the party machinery, has also reached out to some of Ramaphosa’s former supporters, among them Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe Sisulu. She collapsed her 2017 presidential campaign to back Ramaphosa, but has of late moved closer to Magashule and the ANC Women’s League, which had failed to endorse her and instead backed Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.
Sisulu and deputy president David Mabuza are more likely to be opponents, rather than backers, come 2022. Mabuza swung the outcome of the Nasrec conference with his behind the scenes “unity” manoeuvring. Both he and Sisulu are likely use the NGC meeting as a forum to assess their potential to provide Ramaphosa with another shock.
The Democratic Alliance provided its own fair share of surprises in 2019, not least its decision to disembowel itself over the loss of just under 2% of the vote in the May election. Mmusi Maimane’s attempt to sell the party as a nonracial alternative to the ANC failed among its white supporters, with the party’s share of the vote dropping from 22.2% in 2014 to 20.8%, when many moved to the Freedom Front Plus.
The party’s response was to blame the loss on Maimane, who resigned, and to move to the right, with former Western Cape premier Helen Zille making a comeback as DA federal chairperson.
The move sparked a backlash from Maimane’s supporters and ultimately cost the DA control of the Tshwane and Johannesburg metropolitan municipalities. The resignation of Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba, in response to nonracial rejection and the election of Zille, gave the Economic Freedom Fighters, with which the DA had governed the two cities, reason to end the coalition agreement and field its own mayoral candidate to replace Mashaba.
One party that didn’t come with any shocks and surprises in 2019 was the EFF, which continued with its electoral growth, taking 10.8% of the vote nationally and securing its place as the third biggest party in the country. Its dumping of the DA as a coalition partner in Johannesburg and Tshwane was also no surprise, given the changes in the DA leadership and the ability of EFF leadership’s unerring eye for the political about-turn.
The EFF’s elective national assembly in early December also provided no surprises. President Julius Malema and his deputy Floyd Shivambu cemented their control of the party while making an example of Dali Mpofu and other challengers to their authority and ensuring that they failed to make it back to the national leadership.
Perhaps the biggest political surprise of 2019 came from the Inkatha Freedom Party. The IFP not only finally held its elective general conference after 12 years, but did the unimaginable and elected Velenkosini Hlabisa to replace Mangosuthu Buthelezi as its president, a post he had held since its formation 44 years ago.
What did come as no surprise was the decision to appoint Buthelezi as president emeritus — president for life.