South Africans give Ramaphosa solid mandate for change

The election has left Ramaphosa in a strong position, but will he deliver real change?


The ANC won South Africa’s recent election, but with a reduced share of the vote. However, the outcome leaves the country’s president in a stronger position, as David Thomas reports.

Taking to a Johannesburg stage amid pounding dance music, a usually reserved Cyril Ramaphosa shuffled, twerked and laughed his way through an energetic performance as an ecstatic group of supporters and party allies cheered him on.  

For the president of South Africa, the comical dance was a well-earned moment of levity after months of hard campaigning – and an early sign that he was broadly pleased with the outcome of the country’s most competitive election of the post-apartheid era.  

In a result that defies simple interpretation, Ramaphosa’s ruling ANC secured 57.5% of the national vote, retaining its parliamentary majority and achieving a fresh five-year term for the president, but securing its lowest share of the vote in 25 years of electoral dominance. 

For a president whose first year in power was spent dealing with a crippling inheritance from predecessor Jacob Zuma, including an underperforming economy, widespread corruption, unemployment of close to 30%, and damaging party factionalism, the result is likely to be a source of quiet satisfaction, even if it falls short of the ANC’s traditional benchmark of at least 60%.

Neither the official opposition Democratic Alliance – who marginally declined to 20.8%, or the radical Economic Freedom Fighters, up 4.4% to 10.8% – made the dramatic gains that they hoped.   

Yet whether Ramaphosa can use this victory to halt the long-term decline of his party and country will depend to a great extent on whether he is able to live up to his image as a reformer dedicated to economic renewal and cleaner governance.

Now that the president has finally secured a decisive mandate of his own, South Africans are impatient to see whether the result will finally allow him to pursue the sort of wide-ranging reforms for which he has long been the assumed flag-bearer.

“Given what South Africa has been through in the last nine or 10 years from state capture to terrible growth and nearly 10m unemployed, it’s a miracle that the ANC did get [57.5]% at one level,” says Tony Leon, former leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance and executive chairman of Resolve Communications. 

“Of course, at another level the party is in decline. Whether the decline is arrested or indicative of some kind of termination date will depend on a great host of factors over the next five years.”

Internal party pressures 

For members of the long-suffering South African business community, the most crucial of those factors is the extent to which the result gives Ramaphosa the upper hand over his rivals within the ANC, many of whom are seen as a major impediment to the president’s tentative anti-corruption and economic reforms.  

Speaking before the vote at a London event, Colin Coleman, chief executive of sub-Saharan Africa at Goldman Sachs, predicted that the president would need a decisive mandate to face down disgruntled factions linked to former president Jacob Zuma. 

“The Zuma allies within the ANC would like to see the ANC win, but by a thin majority, thereby undermining Ramaphosa’s position in the party.

“Ramaphosa’s allies would like to see an overwhelming majority which maintains broadly the historic performance of the ANC…  if he gets 50-55% it will be very difficult for him to withstand pressures in the party,” said Coleman. 

On this reading, the 57.5% secured by the ANC – a loss of 4.65% since 2014 – counts as a relatively strong showing that cements the president’s authority and gives him a freer hand when negotiating future policy within the ANC.

Yet for political analyst Ralph Mathekga, falling short of 60% could be a blessing in disguise for the president, given that a stronger showing might have been interpreted as support for radical policy stances introduced into the ANC’s electoral manifesto against the wishes of the president. 

“Had they got over 60%, they would have had more impetus to implement the radical parts of the ANC manifesto.

“The hardliners would be the ones who would say they’ve been affirmed. [57.5%] helps him to manage a weaker ANC – and a weaker ANC is controllable.

“That process of negotiation, that removal of moral authority to go it alone – it’s good for Ramaphosa.”

In a further boost to the president, the ANC suffered some of its most humbling reverses in provinces governed by powerful local barons who emerged in the Zuma years and are seen as key allies of the former president.

The party lost 10.31% in Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal, 8.71% in the Free State and 7.65% in Mpumalanga.

“I do think a lot of these provincial barons who have held sway have had their wings clipped along with this election result – in Mpumalanga, the North West, Kwa-Zulu Natal, the ANC suffered big reversals compared to what it was,” says Leon. 

Such results led Fikile Mbalula, an ally of the president, to sensationally claim that the ANC would have lost the election without Ramaphosa – a comment that enraged secretary-general Ace Magashule, regarded as a Zuma ally. 

Opposition held off

Yet while Mbalula’s claim may be unprovable, few deny that the ANC fought a relatively successful rearguard action against the party’s external opponents. 

For Julius Malema, the firebrand leader of the left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters, this election was a crucial test of his ambition to radicalise society and win over disgruntled ANC supporters with calls to expropriate white-owned farmland and place the state at the centre of the economy.

Prior to the poll, senior EFF figures had expressed hopes of taking chunks out of the traditional ANC vote in rural and township communities and becoming “kingmakers” in a hung parliament.

In the end, they had to settle for a modest improvement of 4.4% – a respectable increase almost entirely at the expense of the ANC, but which nevertheless shows that they have much to do if they are to threaten the party’s majority.   

“The EFF performance is very interesting. They exaggerated what they were likely to get and have been humbled,” says Mathekga.

“But for a political party which has existed for less than 10 years, its pretty good. It just doesn’t fit the approach of the EFF, which is to radicalise society. Project Radicalisation has not been affirmed.

If you were to ask me in one sentence what this election means, I would say a rejection of populism.” 

The EFF’s moderate improvement may make it hard for Ramaphosa’s internal opponents to force a shift to radical policies, including nationalisation of the central bank and a harder line on expropriation without compensation of white-owned farmland.

Yet while the EFF at least showed tantalising signs of progress, the official opposition Democratic Alliance find themselves treading water following a 1.46% drop in support – the first time in the party’s history that it has lost support at a general election.

Former leader Leon said that the “disappointing” result must prompt significant reflection in a party that has struggled to win over black voters while retaining its traditional support base among white and coloured voters.  

“It got caught in the middle of its strategic incoherence in trying to be a bit of everything to everyone,” says Leon.

“It lost about 300,000 votes to the Freedom Front on the right and wasn’t making enough gains among potential black constituencies to offset that and get a net positive.

“The party’s position is not catastrophic, but it requires very serious introspection on what it’s going to do. They perhaps neglected elements of their core constituency on the assumption they had nowhere else to go – well, they clearly did.”

Cyril’s next steps

With Ramaphosa’s internal and external rivals sidelined for now, attention will once again turn to policymaking.

The president’s checklist remains formidable. As well as reforming decrepit state-owned enterprises – including overseeing a R5bn ($350m) bailout of Eskom, the failing energy supplier – Ramaphosa needs to kickstart growth projected by the IMF at just 1.2% this year, continue to root out ANC corruption and attract job-creating businesses to the country, say investors. 

“He needs a strong government to deal with under­performance on inequality.

“[He needs to] get growth back to 3% at least over the next few years, which is 1% above population growth and more in line with the 25-year average growth rate.

“The real question about Cyril’s leadership will be if he gets that benchmark, does he act decisively.

“If he fails that test it will be negative but I’m a big believer in his leadership and think he will rise to the challenge,” says Goldman’s Colin Coleman. 

Hasnen Varawalla, co-head of banking for Absa, where he oversees corporate finance, capital markets and M&A, says that a commitment to growth and overhauling state enterprises should drive government.

“The South African economy needs to start growing at a faster pace than what we’ve seen in recent quarters.

“The investment climate and all those things need to be addressed in order to drive the fundamental question, which is that of growth.

“There has been a distinct falling in standards of governance in many of the enterprises in South Africa, and that is something that has got to be addressed.

“It’s important for creating a strong base for the economy and important to be able to encourage investment into the country.”

Yet not all are convinced that Ramaphosa’s solid victory will really lead to policy certainty.

Dismissing the business community as “straw clutchers”, Leon says that the president is yet to demonstrate his genuine reform credentials despite their hopes.

With his majority intact and a freer hand to pursue his policy choices, the next five years will prove whether those who placed their faith in the president will be vindicated or disappointed.  

“I think there’s a lot of wishful thinking around whether Ramaphosa truly has an economic reform agenda.

“If he does we’ve seen little sight of it other than cleaning out corruption. In a sense that’s the easier part. I’m much less optimistic about whether he’s going to become more business friendly, try and reform the sclerotic labour market, stare down public sector unions and their budget busting wage increases, whatever the [voting] percentages.

“The outcome is market neutral in terms of a reform agenda… we’ll see the colour of his money soon enough.”

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