/ 10 February 2020

Sona will cast a spotlight on Ramaphosa (and the ANC’s) many problems

Cyril Ramaphosa
President Cyril Ramaphosa. (David Harrison/M&G)

As I outlined in a previous article about the ANC’s 108th anniversary, President Cyril Ramaphosa is a man beset by many problems. His grip on the the levers of state is weak — this is not a personal failure but the outcome of 25 years of disastrous statecraft by the governing party — and his grip on his party is weaker still.

There are serious questions about whether Ramaphosa will get a second term as party president in December 2022 (and thus president of the republic in 2024). If the national general council (NGC) in June batters and bruises him as looks likely, he could be permanently damaged, limping all the way to inevitable doom in two-and-a-half years’ time.

But this is no cause for celebration for anyone in the ANC — not even his worst enemies. That is because most of Ramaphosa’s problems are ANC problems. If the president is in trouble inside the party, then the party is in trouble with the country.

Heading to the state of the nation (Sona) and the NGC, Ramaphosa and the ANC face the following issues, many of which it is no exaggeration to say are existential threats:

• the state of the South African economy;

• the crisis of state-owned entities (SOEs) and state institutions;

• disunity and factionalism;

• policy incoherence and uncertainty;

• loss of credibility on corruption;

• rapid demographic shifts; and

• softening electoral support.  

The state of the economy 

With unemployment at 30% and still climbing, gross domestic product (GDP) growth set to fall below 1% in 2020 and many other adverse indicators, there is growing consensus that Ramaphosa’s gamble as the “economic recovery candidate” is not paying off. This has made the president weaker in the eyes of his detractors, who will use this weakness to push for more radical populist policy moves (on land expropriation, the Reserve Bank, nationalisation and so forth) than the president can stomach, in an effort to loosen his grip on the ANC and the state ahead of December 2022.

The crisis of SOEs 

The most important symbol of the faltering economy is the crisis of Eskom and, to a smaller extent, other SOEs such as SAA. The president is further undermined by the growing feeling that there is no single, coherent plan about what to do with Eskom. Moreover, the problems with Eskom and SAA have now become inextricably linked with the position of Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan, who is seen as the president’s closest ally and key fixer but is also a popular target for the remnants of the Zuma faction and other disaffected groups. This complicates things for Ramaphosa and has the potential to drive a wedge between him and the rest of the leadership corps in the top six.

Disunity and factionalism 

Many ANC members who supported Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in 2017 have regrouped and are even forming new alliances. Deputy President David Mabuza, who was critical to Ramaphosa’s narrow victory in 2022, may see 2022 as his last viable chance at the ANC presidency. In addition, a rift between Ramaphosa and Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe Sisulu (a 2017 presidential contender) has created a rapprochement between herself and the Dlamini-Zuma faction (represented by secretary general Ace Magashule and ANC Women’s League  president Bathabile Dlamini).

On top of this “normal” factional realignment between conferences, there is a growing generational rift in ANC ranks, with younger leaders (many serving as provincial MECs, premiers, mayors, MMCs and so on) murmuring that 2022 should be the year the ANC makes a decisive break with its older “struggle-era leadership”.

Policy incoherence 

The party’s inability to develop policy and then ensure that it implements, communicates, and unites around policy positions has opened a gap for many outsiders, including opposition parties, to gain control of the public discourse about emotive (and possibly vote-catching) issues. An example is the Economic Freedom Fighters’ stance on land expropriation. In turn, this has opened an internal rift in the ANC, between the faction calling itself “radical economic transformation forces” (essentially Zuma faction remnants) and Ramphosa’s “pragmatists” (the public symbol of which is Gordhan, hence the target on his back).

Loss of credibility on corruption 

Although Ramaphosa’s credentials on the economy and policy have been significantly weakened, most South Africans still trust him to “clean up” the mess of corruption and state capture created over the past decade. However, the “fight back” campaign of the radical economic transformation forces against his clean-up, and the generally slow pace in turning state institutions around, means that Ramaphosa and the ANC cannot take this general support for granted for too long. Without significant improvement in this area in 2020, both will lose credibility and could be punished in the 2021 municipal polls.

Demographic shifts

Virtually all the senior leaders vying for the ANC presidency in 2017 were well into their 60s. Notwithstanding the appointment of some younger people in Ramaphosa’s 2019 Cabinet, their average age still hovers in the late 50s. The ANC’s national executive committee is only slightly better. In a country where the median age is 27, this creates distance between the ANC and the society it is meant to lead. This explains the tone-deafness of much of the ANC’s public posture, and the general sense of “stagnation” that (younger) people increasingly associate with the governing party.

Weakening electoral support

In part linked to the above phenomenon, the ANC’s electoral decline continues (57% in 2019, down from 62% in 2014). If this trend persists, this could be the last decade in which the ANC holds power. How to turn the picture around is a question about which there is no consensus in the party. But there is a general view that there needs to be a seismic shift in what the party looks like, how it communicates and how it governs in order to slow or reverse the trend. That shift may begin in 2022, with its dress rehearsal at the 2020 NGC.

As the party and the president gear up for the second Sona since the last election, the weaknesses and dangers that beset both are abundantly clear. What is not is whether they can put aside the disunity and chaos that is seemingly written into their DNA and work together to save themselves from ruin.

Lima is a historian and political analyst based in the Eastern Cape