How to Save the African National Congress

Cyril Ramaphosa’s mission: pulling the storied South African party back from the brink

President of the ANC Cyril Ramaphosa speaks to the media ahead of the ANC's 106th anniversary celebrations in East London, South Africa, on January 12, 2018.  (Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters)

South Africa is desperate for change. On December 18, the African National Congress party elected businessman Cyril Ramaphosa as its president. Ramaphosa, who had served as deputy president since 2012, won the position on a good governance and anti-corruption platform. His victory seemed, at least in part, a rebuke to the scandal-plagued incumbent Jacob Zuma, who has led the country for the past nine years. It also seemed like a call back to the ANC’s early years of leading South Africa out of the racial segregation and violence of apartheid: Ramaphosa rose to public prominence first as a union leader, and later as one of Nelson Mandela’s trusted advisors during the country’s transition to democracy.

But as Ramaphosa prepared for his first major speech, an address at the ANC’s birthday celebration last Saturday, his ability to govern and his party’s capacity to change are in doubt. When the ANC rose to power in 1994 after ending almost 50 years of white rule, it promised both racial reconciliation and an end to a system plagued by social and economic disparity. Things haven’t exactly gone according to plan. South Africa has struggled to create jobs, hitting a 14-year high of 27.7 percent unemployment last year; unemployment for black South Africans is almost five times as high as it is for white South Africans. The country has also suffered from low economic growth since the 2008 financial crisis, briefly entering a recession last year; two ratings agencies have downgraded its bonds to junk status. Critics, particularly among the black youth, have argued (including in these pages), that despite the expansion of the country’s black middle class, not enough has been done to address racial-economic disparity.

As a result, the ANC’s fortunes have suffered. In local elections in 2016, the party lost control of three major cities, including Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest urban area and economic hub. Its share of the national vote dropped to 53.9 percent, raising the prospect that while it may not lose power, it may be hobbled by a slim majority or even forced into a coalition government after national elections in 2019.

Meanwhile, Zuma has skipped from one scandal to the next. He became the leader of the ANC in 2007 after winning a contentious election while facing corruption charges; one year before, he was acquitted on charges of raping the daughter of a family friend. While Zuma admitted to having sex with the woman, the court ruled that the encounter had been consensual.

After becoming president of South Africa in 2009, an official watchdog report found that Zuma improperly benefited from 246 million rand in public money, spent on improvements to his private residence, which equaled about $23 million at the time. Zuma has also been dogged by accusations that the powerful Gupta family has leveraged its ties with Zuma to help it win state contracts and secure the use of a military base to fly in guests for a private wedding.

The opposition has capitalized on these crises. Both the historically white and liberal Democratic Alliance (DA), South Africa’s largest opposition party, and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a self-described radical party founded by former members of the ANC’s youth wing, have campaigned against the ruling party by tying it to the corruption and poor governance allegations made against Zuma. The DA is the more conventional of the two, running campaign advertisements and issuing public statements. The EFF has sought to confront Zuma in parliament, attempting to use parliamentary procedure to disrupt his speeches. Zuma’s last three state of the nation addresses have ended in loud protests, with the youth party either voluntarily leaving or being ejected in a brawl.

“People … realize their lives suck because people at the top have made the wrong decisions,” Khadija Patel, editor of the weekly Mail & Guardian newspaper, told me. “The ANC is the face of that and now they’re going to go ask the same people to vote for them again—on the basis of what?”

Ramaphosa may be just the person to turn things around for the ANC—simply because he isn’t Zuma. “The opposition may have it a little bit tougher precisely because they have invested so much in the person of Jacob Zuma … When he is removed from the picture, it’s conceivable the ANC may regain lost ground,” University of South Africa political and policy analyst Somadoda Fikeni said.

Ramaphosa began his career as a student anti-apartheid activist. In 1974, he was detained and held by police for 11 months under terrorism laws following a solidarity demonstration held in support of Frelimo, the movement that overthrew colonial Portuguese rule in nearby Mozambique. In 1982, he co-founded the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and became one of its first leaders. Under his leadership, the NUM became what was, at the time of its founding, one of South Africa’s largest all-black unions, in one of its most important economic sectors. Ramaphosa would continue with his union activism, helping to organize a 1987 miner’s strike that, at the time, was the largest in South African history. During this time, Ramaphosa also continued his anti-apartheid activism.

After Mandela’s release from prison, Ramaphosa was the chairperson of his reception committee. In images of Mandela’s first speech following his release, as he addresses the crowds in Cape Town, Ramaphosa can be seen on his left, dutifully holding a microphone. Along with Mandela’s release, the apartheid government also announced that the ANC, which had been outlawed in South Africa, could now operate openly. A year later, in 1991, Ramaphosa was elected to a leadership position in the party and he would become a key negotiator during the talks to end white rule in South Africa. He was reportedly Mandela’s first choice to serve as deputy, but he was overruled by the ANC’s senior members, who said Ramaphosa was too young for the position.

In 1997, Ramaphosa left full-time politics for the private sector. In 2001, he founded Shanduka Group, an investment firm. In his telling, he was “deployed” to the business world by the party as part of an effort to reform corporate South Africa, which had largely marginalized black people during apartheid. Through Shanduka, he acquired the rights to be McDonald’s licensee in South Africa and sat on the boards of major South African finance, telecommunications, and mining corporations. Throughout this time he remained active in the ANC, serving on its national executive committee.

With all his years in the private sector, it’s unclear whether Ramaphosa can connect with ordinary voters. The South African left sees him as too close to corporate interests—in particular mining, which has historically been controlled by white businessmen. In 2012, as a member of the board of directors of platinum miner Lonmin, he asked the government to intervene and end a strike by mineworkers in Marikana. The strike ended with the police shooting dead 34 mineworkers. Ramaphosa later apologized for his role in the massacre.

The Association of Mining and Construction Workers Union, active among workers in the platinum sector, has decried Ramaphosa’s election, calling him a “a threat to radical economic and social transformation.” The union is a bitter rival of NUM, Ramaphosa’s former union. Like Ramaphosa himself, the NUM has been accused by left-wing critics of getting too close to mining companies and not adequately representing their workers.

“[Ramaphosa] suffers from a crisis of credibility among certain sectors of the populations, in particular the working class and the poor who have historically formed the base of the ANC,” political analyst Dale McKinley told me. “People have been paying attention to his own history, his role in Lonmin, his wealth and all these things. He’s going to have to overcome that.”

Meanwhile, Ramaphosa’s victory was welcomed by South Africa’s corporate class, along with trade unions allied with the ANC and moderate white unions. The markets were also sanguine, with the rand hitting a two-year high on the news of his win. “This might be an era of policy certainty. It may make it easier for investors to invest when you have stability,” Fikeni said.

Yet Ramaphosa’s career and political prospects defy simple distillation. His corporate ties aside, he has promised to pursue some left-wing policies. In his inaugural speech as ANC president, Ramaphosa voiced support for “radical economic transformation,” a sometimes vague phrase intended to address racial disparities in the economy that have persisted since the end of apartheid. He also endorsed an ANC decision that government should considering “expropriation of land without compensation” as a means to land reform, a potent populist cause in a country where black people were historically dispossessed of land through apartheid and colonialism.

“He represents on one level a continuity on a macro level. He is a committed capitalist, someone who is not really going to rock the capitalist boat,” McKinley said. “At the same time he understands you need redistributive politics. You need to create opportunities. He’s going to go back to that center-left social democracy that was represented in the early years of the ANC.”

While Ramaphosa is now party leader and will likely lead the ANC into the next elections, he does not have complete control of the organization. Close Zuma allies were also elected to powerful positions in the party and are set to control the ANC’s day-to-day functions and agenda, raising the prospect that Ramaphosa, who even as president is still answerable to the party, will be limited in his ability to act against Zuma or reform government. This has resulted in a visible split in the party’s leadership.

“A lot of people believed that electing Ramaphosa would allow the ANC to self-correct but if the ANC is going to be embroiled with fighting with itself then its going to be very difficult for the ANC to show the voting public that it is making strides,” Patel said. “It’s really not an ideal position for a political party to be in 18 months before an election. Its not just any election but one where the party is expected to be pushed the hardest.”