Is time running out for Ramaphosa?
Alpha Media Group
ON Mhlaba Street in Soweto there is some trepidation this particular morning. All week, summer storms have blown down trees and flooded roads around the small cement houses that line the potholed road. More are expected and Magadelene Maranele at No 118 is far from confident her roof will resist another downpour. There are metaphorical as well as literal storm clouds on the horizon. Just a mile or so away, a cavernous conference centre is being prepared for the elective conference of the African National Congress (ANC) party and the political forecasts are as bad as the meteorological ones. The conference is a five-yearly event that will probably be considerably more exciting than its name suggests. Delegates will elect a new leader of the ANC and so, as the party has been in power for 28 years, of South Africa too. In charge of both is Cyril Ramaphosa, an affable if currently embattled 70-yearold who grew up on Mhlaba Street. Local people remember him well. “A sweet boy, respectful and hardworking,” said Maranele, 86. Her sister, Lillian, agreed. “A very nice family, good neighbours and a nice young man,” she said. Until recently, Ramaphosa’s reelection as head of the ANC was a foregone conclusion. In the past two weeks, the president has been forced on to the defensive after a parliamentary inquiry reported that the president might have committed gross misconduct and even criminal offences after the theft of cash worth between $580,000 and $5m from his private game ranch at Phala Phala in Limpopo province almost three years ago. The allegations mean that Ramaphosa, a centrist reformer, is now fighting for his political life. He remains the most popular politician by some margin in South Africa, but this may not save him from the ANC’s brutal internal factional struggles. “We are dealing with politics here that are really not about creating a better life for all South Africans,” said Judith February, an analyst. In Soweto, which now has a population of more than 1 million, the challenges are very evident. “We’re OK … except for the constant electricity cuts, the dirty water and the fact that there are no jobs,” joked Octavia Mashao, 35, as she helped her mother fry chips and sausages at a snack stand on Mhlaba Street. Others talk of soaring crime rates, drugs and a collapsing healthcare system. But what few deny is that life is still better than it was when Ramaphosa was a barefoot boy walking with his books to the local schools, or to the nearby Lutheran church with his parents, a policeman and housewife. Magadelene Maranele remembers how tens of thousands of households were uprooted from their homes in and around Johannesburg, the city to the north, by the white supremacist apartheid regime and dumped on barely habitable land. A neighbour recalled life during the protests that saw bloody police crackdowns in the township in the 1970s. “It was tough, really tough,” said Moroesi Maluleke, 61. A restaurant in Soweto’s Vilakazi Street, once home to former president Nelson Mandela, which has seen house prices soar amid growing prosperity. A restaurant in Soweto’s Vilakazi Street, once home to former president Nelson Mandela, which has seen house prices soar amid growing prosperity. Photograph: Jeffrey Isaac Greenberg /Alamy Now, though cattle still graze down by the overflowing river and sprawling squatter camps cover any flat land, Soweto boasts a theatre, malls, multiple car dealerships, a football stadium and a thriving tourist trade. Around the fashionable Vilakazi Street, once home to the late former president Nelson Mandela and archbishop Desmond Tutu, house prices have soared and shining SUVs sit proudly outside many homes. This is the kind of growth that Ramaphosa, who started his political career as a labour activist but made a fortune in business in the 1990s after being passed over as successor to Mandela, would like to see everywhere in South Africa. His fortune of an estimated $500m has not hurt him as a politician. “His wealth helps because … he is seen is someone who is so rich he has no interest in being corrupt,” said Asanda Ngoasheng, an independent political analyst. Ramaphosa’s wealth helps because he is seen as someone so rich that he has no interest in being corrupt Asanda Ngoasheng, political analyst With the economy crippled by rolling nationwide power cuts, corruption and crumbling infrastructure, there is little chance of Ramaphosa’s ambition being fulfilled soon. The biggest single factor may be the vote at the elective conference, which begins this week. “The conference is the most important election we have. It’s especially important because, even if Ramaphosa is not making major progress, the alternatives are very unpromising,” said Anthony Butler, professor of political studies at Cape Town University. The most serious challenger to Ramaphosa is Zweli Mkhize, a former health minister who resigned after being accused of embezzlement of public funds during the Covid pandemic and is closer to the left wing of the party. “The ANC is likely to drop below 50% in 2024 for the first time in [general elections] and different leaders would have very different responses to that loss,” Butler said. This raises the prospect of the party governing as part of a coalition — a first since the fall of the apartheid regime in 1994 — or even in opposition. “Cyril is a good man. He is trying his best. If there are problems, they are not his fault. He has lots of enemies and they are getting in the way and making tricks and traps for him,” Maranele said. The recent charge of graft is one of these, many say. The main