JOHANNESBURG – The caravan of black luxury vehicles transporting President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa rumbled through the township’s narrow streets, veered through potholes filled with standing water in drainage ditches, and stopped near the concrete frame of a house Unfinished government supplied.
Mr. Ramaphosa had arrived in Tembisa, a municipality about 30 minutes northeast of Johannesburg, before local elections to sell to residents everything that his party, the African National Congress, had supposedly done to improve their lives.
“I see development everywhere,” Ramaphosa said from atop a mobile campaign stage, drawing disbelieving mockery from hundreds of otherwise supportive residents.
Ramaphosa, a 68-year-old wealthy former business investor, rose to the highest political office in the nation three years ago with a reputation as an exceptional negotiator and consensus builder. Nelson Mandela anointed him to help negotiate an end to apartheid. Two decades later, Ramaphosa surpassed his predecessor, Jacob Zuma, to gain control of the ruling African National Congress and the country.
When South Africans go to the polls on Monday to elect local government officials, Ramaphosa’s name will not appear on the ballot. But as the country’s most popular politician, he faces perhaps his most difficult task yet: persuading citizens to give the African National Congress, known as the ANC, another chance.
This once heroic liberation party has been marred by a trail of corruption, inept government and internal disputes that have left much of the country in social and economic chaos.
When Ramaphosa assumed the presidency, he was seen as a traditional and measured, if boring personality, and a much-needed stabilizing force after the tumultuous and scandalized tenure of his populist predecessor.
However, the public’s initial enthusiasm for his presidency (Ramaphoria, they called him) has given way to strong headwinds.
His promise to rejuvenate an embattled economy and job market has been hampered by the Covid-19 pandemic. Its greatest strength, which allows democratic processes to develop and relies on a wide range of views before taking action, has also been criticized for its unwillingness to make difficult decisions.
His rival, Mr. Zuma, has remained a thorn in his side, with loyal supporters who, in July, helped incite some of the worst unrest in South Africa since the end of apartheid, authorities said. The riots resulted in more than 300 victims and hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. Many criticized Ramaphosa’s response as slow and the police and army as ineffective.
Now the elections present another test, one that their political opponents could well exploit if the ANC underperforms.
“This will become ammunition for them to argue that he is not the right person to lead the ANC,” said Chris Matlhako, second deputy general secretary of the South African Communist Party, a partner in the ANC alliance.
Born and raised in Soweto, Ramaphosa took advantage of student activism in an early career as a union leader, fighting some of the largest mining companies in the country.
He defeated Zuma to become secretary general of the ANC in 1991, but later lost his candidacy to become Mandela’s vice president. He left politics and made a fortune investing in business through black economic empowerment efforts aimed at correcting the inequality created by apartheid.
He returned to the political fold in 2014 to serve as Zuma’s vice president during a period of notorious corruption. Mr. Ramaphosa has insisted that he never knew the full extent of the corruption and that he worked from within to try to bring about change.
After defeating a Zuma ally to become ANC president in 2017, he was part of an effort the following year that pressured Zuma to step down as president before his term ended.
Through his spokesman, Ramaphosa declined the requests for interviews.
Ramaphosa has risen above criticism within the party “and has embraced the entire people,” said Sihle Zikalala, prime minister and top ANC official in KwaZulu-Natal, Mr. Zuma’s home province. “He did not use his position to purge others. And he has been that type of person who does not isolate people because they oppose him ”.
In response to the pandemic, Ramaphosa has regularly convened his ministers for hour-long sessions that include in-depth presentations by ministry officials, said Lindiwe Zulu, minister of social development.
“Sometimes I think he consults too much,” Zulu said. “There are times when I feel like, ‘You know what? Just make that decision.’
Ultimately, however, Zulu said he saw the wisdom of the president’s process. He’s energetic when he needs to be. He received praise across Africa for berating rich countries for stockpiling Covid-19 vaccines and eventually negotiating deals to increase the production and supply of vaccines on the continent.
Ms Zulu recalled that the president was unhappy that South Africans had to wait in long lines, risking exposure, to receive their monthly Covid-19 aid grants of 350 rand ($ 24). He ordered him to find a more efficient way to distribute them using technology, although residents have complained that the new system is flawed.
“He’s always very capable of telling you directly: ‘I’m not happy with what happened there. I think you can do better, ‘”Ms. Zulu said.
For many South Africans, Ramaphosa has lacked that assertiveness at critical moments.
When his health minister, Zweli Mkhize, a prominent ANC official, was implicated this year in a corruption scandal related to a Covid-19 communications contract, Ramaphosa never convicted him. In fact, when Mr. Mkhize resigned after a damning report from a special investigator, Mr. Ramaphosa thanked him and said: “It has served the nation well.”
Ramaphosa told reporters that he wanted to respect Mkhize’s right to due process.
“It would have been useful to say something like, ‘I fired Minister Zweli Mkhize,'” said Mmusi Maimane, former leader of the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance.
According to an afrobarometer survey64 percent of the public believe that corruption has increased over the past year, despite Ramaphosa’s promise to clean up what happened to Zuma. The former president is being criminally prosecuted on corruption charges, and his tenure was so tainted by financial scandals that he led to the creation of a commission of inquiry, which has been operating for three years.
When looting and vandalism engulfed the KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng provinces in July, many saw it as a result of Ramaphosa’s failure to resolve the ANC’s internal war and control unemployment. The unrest began with Zuma loyalists protesting his incarceration for contempt, but escalated into massive chaos through a coordinated effort by forces within the ANC attempting to sabotage the leadership, party officials said.
Ramaphosa quickly reached out to political, civic and religious leaders, encouraging them to negotiate peace, the allies said. He was concerned that an aggressive deployment of the security forces could lead to more bloodshed, reminiscent of the repressions of the apartheid era.
You know very well what it is to be criticized for state violence. He was on the board of a company that owned a mine when the 34 striking miners were killed by police in 2012. He had urged the authorities to intervene against the strikers and is now being charged in a lawsuit filed by the victims’ families.
After the recent riots, Ramaphosa waited four days to address the nation, speaking in his typical dry and dispassionate tone. He mobilized the military on the fifth day.
Mr. Ramaphosa would later reorganize his cabinet. But even so, he moved some ministers deemed ineffective to other positions rather than firing them to appease internal ANC factions, analysts said.
That hasn’t stopped Zuma loyalists from trying to use the unrest to undermine Ramaphosa’s credibility.
Tony Yengeni, a senior ANC official and a Zuma supporter, said the unrest revealed the absence of a leader like Mandela, who “would have gone to where the fires were burning and clashed with angry grassroots people.” .
Despite criticism, Mr. Ramaphosa enjoys high favorability ratings.
“The ANC brand has suffered in the last decade,” said Fikile Mbalula, the party’s election chief and the country’s transport minister, in a written response to questions.
Therefore, the task of turning the tide has fallen to Ramaphosa, who makes a smooth transition between the different local languages during the campaign. Dance a little shuffle as the crowd greets you singing: “On your marks! Get ready! We’re ready for Ramaphosa!”
He has been brutally honest about the ANC’s failure to select competent local candidates. But he also tries to reach an agreement with the voters.
Last Thursday, when visiting a township on the outskirts of Johannesburg that suffered from regular power outages, Mr. Ramaphosa rejected a message that some residents displayed on billboards: “No electricity, no vote.” Power outages happen everywhere, he said, even in California.
South Africans should not forget who brought them electricity in the first place, he said.
“So if you don’t want the ANC, who will you put in power that can give you electricity?” Mr. Ramaphosa asked. “No one.”