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He brokered apartheid’s end. Can he save South Africa’s Liberation Party?

Ramaphosa, a 68-year-old wealthy former business investor, ascended to the nation’s highest political office three years ago on a reputation as an exceptional negotiator and consensus builder.

By: New York Times | Johannesburg |
November 1, 2021 11:10:15 am
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa adresses an African National Congress election rally in Sebokeng, South Africa, on Friday. (Photo: The New York Times)

The motorcade of black luxury vehicles carrying South African President Cyril Ramaphosa rumbled through the narrow township streets, swerved around potholes filled with stale water from backed-up drainage ditches and stopped near the concrete shell of an unfinished government-supplied house.

Ramaphosa had come to Tembisa, a township about 30 minutes northeast of Johannesburg, before local elections to sell residents on all 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, eliciting incredulous jeers from hundreds of otherwise supportive residents.

Ramaphosa, a 68-year-old wealthy former business investor, ascended to the nation’s highest political office three years ago on a reputation as an exceptional negotiator and consensus builder. He was anointed by Nelson Mandela to help broker the end of apartheid. Two decades later, Ramaphosa outmaneuvered his predecessor, Jacob Zuma, to win control of the governing African National Congress — and the country.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa arrives at an African National Congress election rally in Sebokeng, South Africa on Friday. (Photo: The New York Times)

When South Africans go to the polls Monday to elect local government officials, Ramaphosa’s name will not be 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 tarnished by a trail of corruption, inept governance and internal bickering that has left much of the country in social and economic turmoil.

When Ramaphosa took over the presidency, he was seen as a traditional and measured — if boring — personality, and a much-needed stabilizing force following the tumultuous, scandal-tarred tenure of his populist predecessor.

Yet the public’s early excitement about his presidency — Ramaphoria, they called it — has given way to stiff headwinds.

His vow to rejuvenate a beleaguered economy and labor market has been hampered by the Covid-19 pandemic. His greatest strength — that he allows democratic processes to play out and draws on a wide range of views before taking action — has also been criticized as an unwillingness to make tough choices.

His rival, Zuma, has continued to be a thorn in his side, with a loyal following that, in July, helped to incite some of the worst rioting in South Africa since the end of apartheid, authorities said. The unrest resulted in more than 300 casualties and hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. Many criticized Ramaphosa’s response as slow, and the police and military as ineffectual.

Now the elections present yet another test, one his political opponents may well exploit if the ANC underperforms.

“This will become ammunition for them to argue that he’s not the right person to lead the ANC,” said Chris Matlhako, second deputy general secretary of the South African Communist Party, an alliance partner of the ANC.

Born and raised in Soweto, Ramaphosa parlayed student activism into an early career as a trade union leader, battling some of the nation’s biggest mining companies.

He beat Zuma to become the ANC’s secretary-general in 1991, but he later lost a bid to become Mandela’s deputy president. He left politics and earned a fortune investing in businesses through Black economic empowerment efforts meant to redress the inequality apartheid created.

Supporters of the Economic Freedom Fighters carry a mock coffin with a photo of Cyril Ramaphosa, leader of the governing party African National Congress, during an election rally in Katlehong township, east of Johannesburg, on Friday. (Photo: The New York Times)

He returned to the political fold in 2014 to serve as Zuma’s deputy president during a period of notorious corruption. Ramaphosa has insisted that he never knew the full extent of the corruption and that he worked from the inside to try to effect change.

After defeating a Zuma ally to become the ANC president in 2017, he was part of an effort the following year that pressured Zuma to resign as president before his term was up.

Through his spokesman, Ramaphosa declined interview requests.

Ramaphosa has risen above critics within the party “and embraced the whole people,” said Sihle Zikalala, the premier and top ANC official in KwaZulu-Natal, Zuma’s home province. “He didn’t use his position to purge others. And he has been that kind of person who does not isolate people because they oppose him.”

In responding to the pandemic, Ramaphosa has regularly convened his ministers for hourslong sessions that include exhaustive presentations from 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, though, Zulu said she saw the wisdom of the president’s process. He is forceful when he needs to be. He garnered praise across Africa for scolding rich countries for hoarding COVID vaccines, and eventually brokering agreements to increase vaccine production and supply on the continent.

Zulu recalled the president being unhappy that South Africans had to wait in long lines, risking exposure, for their monthly 350 rand ($24) COVID relief grants. He ordered her to find a more efficient way to distribute them using technology — although residents have complained that the new system has glitches.

“He’s always also very able to just tell you straight: ‘Not happy with what has happened there. I think you can do better,’” Zulu said.

Tony Yengeni, a top official in the ANC and a Zuma supporter, said the unrest exposed the absence of a leader like Mandela, who “would have gone to where the fires were burning and engaged with the rank and file people who were angry.”

Despite the criticism, Ramaphosa enjoys high favorability ratings.

Two recent surveys found that he was more popular than the party he leads.

On Thursday, while visiting a municipality outside of Johannesburg that is suffering regular power outages, Ramaphosa pushed back against a message some residents displayed on signs: “No electricity, no vote.” Power failures happen everywhere, he said, even in California.

South Africans shouldn’t forget who had brought them electricity in the first place, he said.

“So if you don’t want the ANC, who will you put in power who can give you electricity?” Ramaphosa asked. “There’s no one.”

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