Ramaphosa Plays Politics

Since becoming the leader of the ANC in December 2017 and president of South Africa in February, Cyril Ramaphosa’s ability to turn around South Africa’s fortunes has been increasingly called in to question. He was widely seen as the antidote to economic decline under Jacob Zuma but, following re-emergence of the land redistribution controversy, confidence in Ramaphosa is waning, especially amongst investors. However, when Ramaphosa’s decisions are examined in the context of 2019’s election, a different, far more encouraging, picture emerges.

Since its electoral highwater mark in 2004, support for the ANC has declined at every general and local election. This decline was particularly pronounced in municipal elections in 2016, when the ANC lost control of major municipalities and its vote share dropped below 55 percent for the first time. Worryingly for the ANC, local elections provide a strong indication of the ANC’s performance at subsequent general elections. In 2006, the ANC secured 66.3 percent of the vote in the municipal elections and, in 2009, it obtained 65.9 percent of the vote at the general election. In 2011, the ANC secured 61.95 percent of the vote in the municipal elections and, in 2014, it obtained 62.15 percent of the vote in the general election. If this pattern continues, the ANC is on course to secure some 55% in next year’s election; a matter of which Ramaphosa is no doubt acutely aware.

The ANC’s decision to support the Economic Freedom Fighters’ (EFF) motion on land expropriation without compensation must be seen within this context. Ramaphosa recognises that land redistribution is an important matter for the ANC’s base and that any perceived opposition to it would be used by the EFF to discredit him. Before he even became president, it was clear that the EFF planned to portray Ramaphosa as being out of touch with normal South Africans and supportive of ‘White’ economic interests. As its leader – Julius Malema – stated in early February, “What we were doing with Zuma, it was a picnic […] Wait and see what is going to happen with Ramaphosa. What we are going to do to White monopoly capital”.

Consequently, it is unsurprising that Ramaphosa supported the motion, with two effects. First, it helps to protect Ramaphosa and the ANC from EFF criticism ahead of next year’s election. And, second, it helps to weaken the two main opposition parties – the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the EFF. Although the DA and the EFF formed an unlikely alliance in opposing Zuma, this has rapidly broken down since the land expropriation motion, which was opposed by the DA. Accordingly, the EFF has focused its criticism on the DA and is currently trying to remove its mayor in Nelson Mandela Bay – Athol Trollip.

With the DA and EFF at loggerheads, Ramaphosa and the ANC have undermined both parties. In February, the ANC helped to protect the DA’s Mayor of Cape Town – Patricia de Lille – from a motion of no confidence brought by her own party. This was embarrassing for the DA and revealed divisions in the party’s Western Cape stronghold. In March, Ramaphosa invited Malema to re-join the ANC. Although some commentators saw this as further evidence of an ANC lurch to the left, it is more likely that this was a tactical decision to undermine the EFF. Ramaphosa described the ANC as the “home” of EFF supporters and, after backing its motion, he seemingly challenged the need for its existence. The EFF will become increasingly radical in its policies and rhetoric to distance itself from the ANC. This will damage its electoral appeal and, given that it has already been described by sections of the South African media as a “fascist” party, should ensure that it does not pose a significant threat to the ANC’s dominance.

Regarding the land expropriation motion, despite the panic it has invoked, it is unlikely that it will be applied aggressively. There is little reason to believe Ramaphosa will pursue a policy akin to that of neighbouring Zimbabwe. He understands the effect that the policy could have on South Africa’s economy and he has made it clear that his priority is to protect it. Given racial inequalities in South Africa, it is unsurprising that such a motion has widespread support and it should be considered positive that its potential implementation will be overseen by Ramaphosa. The former union leader turned business tycoon has always been able to adopt a range of guises and straddle different groups. Ultimately, he is a pragmatic political negotiator; the type of character which is needed to oversee a potentially explosive matter.

Thus, although it seemed that the land expropriation motion was a victory for the EFF and the far left, it appears that Ramaphosa is using it to the ANC’s advantage. It is highly unlikely that the president will pursue Malema’s interpretation of the policy. Rather, its implementation will most probably be the result of a well thought through process. In the meantime, Ramaphosa will use land redistribution to weaken the opposition and help stem the ANC’s decline. While it is unlikely that Ramaphosa will be able to halt a long-term decline in the ANC’s fortunes, his manoeuvres may mean that next year’s election will be better than those of 2016.

This article originally featured in Africa Integrity’s April 2018 Newsletter. To join our newsletter mailing list, please contact us.

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