South Africa

A PRESIDENT DERAILED

Mr Ramaphosa, meet Reality: ANC’s campaign-by-train backfires when everyday life intervenes

Mr Ramaphosa, meet Reality: ANC’s campaign-by-train backfires when everyday life intervenes
Screenshot: Twitter/@MYANC

It was supposed to be a simple ANC campaign stunt. President Cyril Ramaphosa would take a short train journey in Gauteng on Monday morning, allowing him to interact with regular commuters. But it didn’t work out like that – and, in the process, revealed more about the current state of South Africa than could have been imagined.

The president who got stuck on a train” was how the BBC tweeted an article reporting on President Cyril Ramaphosa’s experience of South Africa’s rail system on Monday.

What should have been a standard campaign event for the ANC became international news after Ramaphosa got a taste of the daily struggles of South African commuters.

Come take a train ride with us,” ANC elections head Fikile Mbalula had tweeted on Monday morning, ahead of the planned event which would see President Ramaphosa and other top officials join ordinary South Africans on their commute from Soshanguve to Tshwane.

The first sign that the trip might not proceed smoothly arrived when the departure of the Metrorail train in question from Mapobane station was delayed by over an hour. Thereafter, the 50-kilometre commute would take three further hours to complete due to delays.

Reporters on the train tweeted that even the president seemed unable to extract an explanation from the train’s driver as to the cause of the delays.

Later, Prasa’s Sipho Sithole would explain that the problems that morning were multiple: another train’s driver had been injured when “some people threw a stone at a train and actually hit the driver on the head”. That train had then “blocked all the trains that were coming from behind”, including the one carrying Ramaphosa.

We then had to take the president through what we call ‘speed restrictions’, because the condition of the infrastructure is too poor to travel at the normal speed,” Sithole said: the result of “ongoing and sustained attacks on our rail infrastructure” by “thugs”.

Upon arrival in Tshwane, Ramaphosa had not lost any of his customary geniality when addressing a crowd of supporters at the station. Indeed, the president presented his train ordeal as part and parcel of the “period of renewal” with which the ANC is currently seized.

We are repairing things, we are putting things right,” Ramaphosa said. “This is one of the things that must be put right.”

He concluded his remarks with a return to the ANC’s campaign script, saying: “Our victory march has started. We are starting to smell victory!”

On social media, however, there was an outpouring of schadenfreude in response to the president’s ordeal.

We saw for ourselves how the train service is really bad for the people of our country,” said Ramaphosa – but as many pointed out, this fact has been known to the government for years.

Exacerbating public frustration was the fact that the president’s ill-fated train ride took place on a day when Metrorail was not the only entity grinding to a halt: the entire country was suffering the effects of another round of Stage Four load shedding.

Intermingled with anger was a distinct sense of satisfaction at the idea that the country’s political elites, who are often cosseted from the effects of poor service delivery, were being given a taste of normal life for the citizens who suffer most from the effects of corruption and maladministration.

The image of Ramaphosa smiling gamely in a packed carriage on the way to nowhere proved irresistible as a metaphor for the challenges faced by the president’s administration as it attempts to undo the ruinous effects of the past decade’s graft-ridden rule.

It was a particular gift for the DA, whose leader Mmusi Maimane has repeatedly invoked transport analogies to describe Ramaphosa’s stewardship of the ANC as a “different driver” of the “same doomed bus”.

One DA councillor, former City of Cape Town Mayco member Brett Herron, had a very similar experience to Ramaphosa’s in 2017 when he took a train from Khayelitsha to Cape Town to “experience for himself the conditions thousands of rail commuters face on a daily basis”.

It took almost three hours for Herron’s train to complete the journey, after delays caused by the electrocution of a man clinging to the roof of an earlier train. Herron, who has since left the DA to join Patricia de Lille’s GOOD party, later said: “You won’t believe the amount of tears I have shed in those three hours listening to people.”

Stories of politicians getting caught up in the travails of ordinary citizens tend to be perversely appealing to the public because of the sense they give of the curtain being ripped back on the squalid reality faced by those who are not protected by power and privilege.

When they occur on the campaign trail en route to an election, so much the better. In that context, there’s an additional sense of divine comeuppance for the politicians painting a rosy picture of their governance accomplishments in the hope of winning votes.

Ramaphosa was shrewd to present his train ordeal as another example of the mess created by the previous regime which his own administration is now bent on fixing. In that situation, it’s hard to imagine a better way of spinning what is clearly a PR disaster for the government.

But the incident comes on the heels of the release of the ANC’s parliamentary list, which reveals that a number of the Zuma administration’s known villains are to be retained in powerful positions after the May elections. From that perspective, the Ramaphosa messaging about renewal and rebuilding starts to wear a bit thin.

Add to that the fact that in the ANC’s 2019 election manifesto, mentions of the crisis facing rail commuters are thin on the ground.

Indeed, the sole mention of work to be undertaken on trains specifically reads: “[The ANC government will] invest in rail infrastructure to ensure it is safe, reliable and integrated with other modes of public transport.”

The manifesto continues: “Rail must be the backbone of our public transport system.”

But as Ramaphosa’s experience on Monday starkly illustrated, a system with rail as its backbone currently suggests a very shaky public transport skeleton indeed.

The manifesto’s lack of detail about fixing the rail system, paired with the (entirely predictable) experience of the president when actually travelling on the train, perpetuates the sense of a ruling elite out of touch with life on the ground for the South African electorate.

The question is whether the ANC train can still reach the station safely come 8 May – or whether a bevvy of political rivals, including many small new parties, can convince voters that their journeys will be smoother with another operator altogether. DM

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