South Africa stood at the crossroads as the country went to the polls on 8 May 2019. Now, with the ink barely dry on the official results, it is clear that the country has averted the Venezuela-like doomsday scenario foretold by so many pessimists.
This is South Africa though and the hands on the doomsday clock perennially hover between five-to-12 and 11:59. The ANC’s own head of elections, Fikile Mbalula, was quick to announce that the ruling ANC would have fallen to as low as 40% – and out of government – had it not been for the talismanic appeal of the country’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa.
Ramaphosa had campaigned on the back of a clean government mandate and was returned, retaining the eight provinces the ANC had held, albeit with reduced majorities. The ANC slipped below the psychological 60% barrier for the first time in South Africa’s history, while the poll turnout dropped to an unprecedented 65% of the 26,736,803 South Africans registered to vote, eight percentage points below the 73% turnout five years before.
Perhaps more concerning were the droves of first-time youth voters who never bothered to register at all. There are 35.9 million South Africans eligible to vote – almost nine million did not register, a further nine million didn’t bother to vote. In other words, the effective turnout was under 50%, not 65%, speaking volumes about the actual perception of organised politics to resolve the country’s issues 25 years after the advent of democracy.
The president still maintains a very tenuous grasp on his own party. On Friday night his own secretary-general (who some allege was at the centre of State Capture) was very quick to deny Ramaphosa had anything to do with the victory, pointing to Ramaphosa’s first big test, which will come at the ANC’s scheduled National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting which will convene to discuss Cabinet appointments and deployment of eight premiers to the provinces which the ANC still controls.
Ramaphosa will face headwinds over his stated bid to trim the bloated size of his Cabinet – at 34 ministers and 35 deputy ministers still one of the largest in the world, albeit down from the Zuma administration when it ballooned to 73, but a far cry from the 50 of Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki.
The faction that opposes him is linked to his predecessor in more ways than one and many of its members face a very real existential crisis if Ramaphosa succeeds with his stated aim not just to clean up government of the scourge of corruption but to prosecute and punish those who have been part of the State Capture that has come to define the last nine years of South African politics.
His other problems will be dealing with the conundrum of trimming a bloated public service that is in many places underdelivering and thus too expensive for the country to afford, while redoubling his efforts to address the employment crisis where more than 40% of the workforce is unemployed, a third of all South Africans depend on state grants and half the country survives on just R1,000 a month.
A major concern will be the polarisation shown by the polls. On the one hand the extremists; the populists to the left and the white nationalists to the right, have outed themselves with the unprecedented – and unpredicted – growth of the ostensible white Afrikaans Freedom Front Plus as a direct reaction to the populist and identity politics of the Economic Freedom Fighters and espoused by certain parts of the ANC, especially the Africanist captured faction pitted against Ramaphosa and his reformers.
Ramaphosa inherits a country that is a ticking time bomb of social problems; disproportionate expectations, a workforce that is increasingly unemployed and, due to lack of the right skills training, right opportunity and right education, unemployable – exacerbated by cohorts of first-time job seekers entering the market from schools in a turgid economy of workplaces that are over-regulated, highly unionised and in some cases terribly investor-unfriendly. Plus, his greatest foes will not be on the opposition benches but in party headquarters.
He has his work cut out for him, but he is trusted by the international market. The longer he stays in office, the greater South Africa’s chance to turn the corner on a lost decade of kleptocracy and lay down the foundations to finally build the kind of nation Nelson Mandela envisaged when he cast his vote on 27 April 1994. DM
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