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.