President Cyril Ramaphosa is looking at a busy and critical period ahead as his administration wrestles with the economic and social ramifications of the pandemic as well as eroding trust in the ruling ANC party, which faces local elections in a few months’ time. Report by Mushtak Parker.
South Africa’s ruling ANC may be a party in crisis, dogged by endless corruption scandals, cronyism and a failure to deliver on key policy promises to lift the masses out of poverty, yet President Cyril Ramaphosa’s administration continues to poll an average of 52% of the popular vote.
Speaking on 27 April, Freedom Day – marking 27 years since the collapse of Apartheid and the country’s first non-racial elections in 1994, Ramaphosa admitted: “The promise of 1994 has not yet been fulfilled. Millions of South Africans still live in conditions of poverty and deprivation.
“For those who continue to suffer from lack of basic services like running water; for those living in fear every day from violence and crime; and for those who have no jobs to support themselves and their families, true freedom remains elusive.”
Democracy did bring de jure rights and dignity, but too few de facto gains.
The President should be commended for acknowledging the party’s overall failure to deliver (notwithstanding pockets of gain) in education, housing, township electrification and jobs. The ANC’s habit of defining the country’s socio-economic woes on the ‘legacy of apartheid’ no longer holds water.
The next few months will be defining for the ANC and the country as it prepares for nationwide local elections on 21 October against the background of the ongoing global coronavirus pandemic. This will be its first electoral test since the 2019 general election when the ANC’s popular vote fell to 57.5%.
Can the ANC continue to take a forgiving electorate for granted? Is South African political culture mature enough to ditch Madiba’s party? However, informed opinion says that ditching the ANC may be an election or two, too near. Most likely, the party will get another bloody nose but still manage to scrape through.
The opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) are as ineffectual as the radical extreme left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) are unelectable. In 2019 the DA got 20.8% and the EFF 10.8% of the vote.
For the present, the immediate priorities for Team Ramaphosa are clear: managing the pandemic and the vaccine roll-out; economic recovery and reconstruction; fighting corruption and state capture; upholding the constitution and rule of law; reining in public sector wages and resolving the ANC’s governance issues.
The lack of a credible alternative to the ANC has allowed it to ride the electoral wave by default. Nevertheless, its share of popular support has been steadily declining and at some point, it might tip over if nothing more than out of frustration that it seems to have taken its eye off the ball and become distracted by personal issues.
Getting to grips
But there are signs that in government, Ramaphosa is starting to get to grips with tackling the country’s key challenges. “We will be going to the polls at an immensely difficult time in the life of our country,” he reminded the electorate on Freedom Day. “The Covid-19 pandemic continues to have a devastating impact not only on public health, but on our economy.”
Ramaphosa was commended for his initial response to the crisis, although this was later tainted by allegations of PPE procurement profiteering within the system, and indecisiveness relating to the timing of lockdowns and a vaccine roll-out strategy. The signs are that the pandemic is coming under control.
South Africa has been the country most affected by the virus in Africa. As at 10 May, says the WHO, South Africa had reported confirmed Covid cases totalling 1,594,817, which resulted in 54,724 fatalities. It is 20th in the World Covid League Table in terms of confirmed infections, with the daily rate of confirmed cases declining to 2,195 and resulting in 37 deaths.
There might be a major feel-good bonus in July when the British & Irish Lions rugby team’s tour of South Africa starts. This includes a three-match Test series against the world champions, South Africa’s Springboks. That the series is going ahead is a miracle in itself and a much-needed boost to a rugby-mad nation.
On the economic front, the two biggest challenges are the post-pandemic Economic Recovery and Reconstruction Plan and public sector wages.
Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s 2021 Budget in February was more a document of aspiration. The economy is projected to rebound by 3.3% in 2021, following a 7.2% contraction in 2020. The Treasury’s own full budget review shows a declining GDP trajectory at 2.2% in 2020 and 1.6% in 2023, well below the minimum 5% growth needed to deliver on its jobs and upliftment promises.
The current deadlocked wage negotiations with public sector unions, including the powerful Cosatu, once led by Ramaphosa, represent a political challenge.
The Treasury wants a three-year wage freeze for a bloated sector. The unions want a 7.1% inflation-proof rise in addition to generous allowances, which the economy can ill-afford. Can the President use his negotiating skills to avert threatened strikes and persuade the unions to defer their wage demands?
The IMF team leader on South Africa, Ana Lucia Coronel, has warned that reining in the public sector wage bill and avoiding ill-targeted subsidies to inefficient state-owned enterprises are “essential in reducing the fiscal deficit and to stabilise public debt”.
She advocates a decisive reform package that removes constraints to growth and job creation through the modernisation of the country’s “burdensome” employment protection laws, which are seen as a disincentive to competition, private sector involvement and FDI inflows.
Unemployment, according to SA Statistics, increased from 30.8% in Q3 to 32.5% in Q4 2020 – the “highest rate recorded since the start of the Quarterly Labour Force Survey in 2008”. This translates into 7.233m jobless against 15.024m in work and 17.054m economically inactive. Youth unemployment is particularly a concern at almost 55%.
Ramaphosa reaffirmed his democratic credentials when he reminded Parliament in May that “the achievement of a national democratic society is a necessary response to the economic and social inequalities in South Africa.”
A few days earlier he appeared before the Zondo Commission of Inquiry at the Constitutional Court into allegations of state capture, fraud and corruption in the public sector, including organs of state.
He admitted that “state capture has had a profound impact on the ANC’s ability to carry out its mandate. Although it is at times uncomfortable and difficult, we welcome this scrutiny as a necessary step in tackling corruption in the state and across society.”
This is the same Zondo Commission to which ex-President Jacob Zuma, on allegations of state capture, has shown utter disdain, refusing even to heed subpoenas for him to attend.
Zuma’s days are numbered, with even his own legal team abandoning him. How the justice system deals with the Zuma charges will determine whether the country is on its way to achieving Ramaphosa’s holy grail of a national democratic society, in which no one is above the law.
In May Ramaphosa also dealt corruption and the ANC’s internal governance a major blow when he suspended the party’s secretary-general Ace Magashule and other senior party officials – all charged with criminal offences relating to Magashule’s tenure as the Free State’s premier. These festering flaws are the bane of the ANC.
The fact that Magashule had to be dragged screaming from the post suggests that ANC factionalism remains a clear and present danger for the Ramaphosa Presidency. That is yet another issue that he needs to iron out.