There are times when it appears in our politics that there are very few rules, or that most of the “usual” rules of politics no longer apply. However, public popularity is generally seen as important — a perception that someone enjoys popular support can give them a strong legitimacy.
A new poll suggests that while President Cyril Ramaphosa is still very popular in South Africa, some of his key allies, such as Finance Minister Tito Mboweni and Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan, are losing support. Perhaps more important for Ramaphosa, the same poll shows that there are low levels of support for ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule.
The poll, by Citizens Surveys, asked 3,900 people for their views on political figures during the second quarter of 2019. The methodology of all polls is often questioned — in this case the interviews were conducted face to face. Those who fared badly in this research might still challenge it while those who fared relatively well might talk up its importance.
The key data points are these: Ramaphosa’s favourability rating is at 62%, Magashule’s 11%, Gordhan’s 26%, Deputy President David Mabuza’s 21% and Mboweni’s 29%.
Outside the ANC, EFF leader Julius Malema’s rating is now at 25%, a drop from 30% in the first quarter of 2019. DA leader Mmusi Maimane is at 28%, the same level he has been for several quarters.
For many, the two important numbers might be those of Ramaphosa and Magashule. If the power-struggle between them is the single most important aspect of our politics at the moment, these numbers are significant.
In more established democracies, sitting presidents are lucky to have favourability ratings above 50%. Often, what is called their “disapproval” ratings are very high, depending on various factors — including simply having to govern — and economic factors. A figure of 62% would be seen as very high anywhere in the 21st-century political world.
Certainly, this survey appears to bolster the view that “the Ramaphosa factor” was important in the May elections. This issue was reflected in what looked like a public spat on the floor of the election results centre while the ballots were still being counted. Now Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula suggested Ramaphosa had been important for the ANC’s share of the vote while Magashule said individuals were not that significant — the ANC was. Magashule eventually had to “clarify” his remarks in a TV interview, with Mbalula sitting on a chair just out of the camera shot.
The low rating for Magashule is surely not a surprise. News about him has generally been negative. In one of the more recent examples, he was blamed for the rand losing value after saying the ANC wanted to change the policy of the Reserve Bank (he claimed he was merely expressing ANC policy as agreed at Nasrec). His dealings while Free State Premier and the ANC leader were also exposed in Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s Gangster State, which almost certainly added to his low level of support.
The drip-feed of bad news from the Zondo Commission involving Magashule may be playing an important role too. As it is still a work in progress, his support figures are likely to decline even further. The commission is now in a crucial phase; it has heard important testimony about how the proper procedures were flouted to ensure that the Estina company ended up managing R200-million (the day before the Free State Agriculture Department decided to award Estina the project it had R16.98 cents in its bank account. It then received a payment of R30-million).
As a result of this, Magashule simply does not have the option of using any form of popular support as a political weapon. His appearances on TV or at press conferences have not served to improve his image. It doesn’t help that the questions he faces tend to be about him rather than about ANC policy.
Ramaphosa, on the other hand, does not appear to have this problem. Still, so intense is what Professor Steven Friedman has called “this moment of national gloom” that his own popularity is bound to be affected. A slowing economy, the possibility of more job losses and the contradictory factors of both a disappointment in a lack of reform and a fear of the possibility of reform are bound to have an impact.
However he, and others, must surely be concerned about the low favourability figures for Gordhan and Mboweni. It seems slightly strange that those who are closely associated with Ramaphosa have such low popularity.
Mboweni’s numbers are easier to explain.
First, not everyone takes cooking that seriously. Second, his insistence that the e-tolls systems in Gauteng remain in place and drivers pay to use the highways (not that they do…) is bound to have an impact on his figures. Third, he can sometimes appear to be out of sync with the national mood, with comments about selling SAA and other unexpected moments.
Gordhan’s numbers are more difficult to understand. He was largely the rock on which former president Jacob Zuma’s strategy foundered. He used public opinion very effectively during that time and now appears unable to do that.
This might well be connected with his main responsibility, as the “Minister for Eskom”. Or it could be to do with fears of reform in the SOEs. It is also important to ponder here about whether this might be because his battle with the public protector and her findings against him is having an impact. While it is difficult to know, it does not appear that Busisiwe Mkhwebane is overly popular in her own right, and the continued court findings against her might well bolster his figures over the longer term.
Then there is the figure of Malema.
While he still has the power to sometimes dominate our politics, there might also be some evidence that some of this power is on the wane. In the months before the May elections, he was able to give the impression of someone who would benefit in a large way, that his share of the vote would jump dramatically. But instead, the EFF garnered less than 11% of the vote. This might suggest to some that his promise to one day be president is not going to be kept — that he is running out of momentum.
His opponents might also argue that the reason for this low figure is the repeated suggestions that he is corrupt. Certainly, the fact that his family lives next door to a cigarette smuggler (who was recently the subject of an attempted hit) can’t help his image, while the VBS issue is still raw in the minds of many people.
So, what now?
Perhaps the most important questions emanating from this survey is whether this will encourage certain politicians to act in different ways. There appears to be a feeling among some in the country that Ramaphosa is not acting, that he is being too cautious. In some cases, strong doubts are emerging about his real commitment to any proper reform. His strong showing here may suggest that he has little room to argue that the “time is not right” for him to act. DM