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South Africa: A president versus his people

May 4, 2022

Cyril Ramaphosa was widely seen as the saving grace of South Africa's ruling ANC party when he became president in 2018. But his credibility with the working class and the poor is falling.

Belgien Südafrikas Präsident Cyril Ramaphosa
Image: Johanna Geron/Pool Photo/AP/picture alliance

Few workers turned up to listen to President Cyril Ramaphosa at a May Day rally in South Africa's North West Province earlier in the week. 

Those who did drowned him out with chants of "Cyril must go!"

The face-off with the president at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium on Sunday involved mostly striking workers from the nearby Sibanye-Stillwater gold mine in Rustenburg and those supporting the miners' demands for better pay.

A bid at damage control

Ramaphosa's hasty retreat in an armored police truck was televised live. 

"I could not believe it when the whole thing was unfolding. In fact, I was saying to my wife when the president was chased away that I could not believe it," Herman Mashaba, the former mayor of Johannesburg and ActionSA party leader, told the News24 network.

In the days since Ramaphosa was booed off stage, his ruling African National Congress (ANC) and its traditional allies and supporters have been busy doing damage control.

Ramaphosa quickly released a statement expressing the need for a "fair" wage settlement for the miners.

"The wage grievances of the workers in Rustenburg deserve the attention of all stakeholders, employers and labor so that a fair and sustainable settlement can be reached," he wrote in a newsletter this week. "As government, we are committed to play our part."

A crucial time

But many refused to believe the promises and said that they agreed with the crowd's anti-Ramaphosa actions at the May Day events.

Political parties and analysts are paying close attention to the situation. Not only are municipal by-elections currently underway in three provinces, internal power struggles are flaring within the ANC, and Ramaphosa faces a bid for reelection as party leader next year. 

"One could say that he is gradually losing credibility among workers who want shop-floor issues to be addressed by the government," said Brian Sokotu, a Johannesburg-based political reporter.

The two biggest mine unions are demanding a pay increase of 1,000 rand ($63 or €60) a month over the next three years. 

The mine wants to give its workers only 800 rand more.

An open wound

The disgruntled workers in North West Province operate not very far from the Marikana mine in the country's platinum belt where police gunned down 34 striking mineworkers and seriously injured dozens more in 2012.

At the time, Ramaphosa was a non-executive director of Lonmin, the multinational that ran Marikana. 

Lonmin, which has since been acquired by Sibanye-Stillwater, favored a tough intervention to end the strike. 

The massacre marked a low-point in post-apartheid South Africa and many citizens are yet to accept Ramaphosa's subsequent apology.

Police officers stand near several bodies lying on the ground
Police gunned down 34 striking platinum miners at Marikana in North West province, in a show of lethal force not seen since the apartheid era

During the apartheid era, Ramaphosa was the leader of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). He was notorious for his lavish taste, his enjoyment of fine wines and his tendency to fly first class.

He accumulated considerable wealth under Black economic empowerment initiatives after the end of white minority rule in 1994.

Today Ramaphosa's fortune is estimated to be in the triple million dollar digits.

Who trusts Ramaphosa?

The issue the president faces is how to reconcile the needs of workers with the demands of big mining and business enterprises. 

"In theory, he is embedded in both institutions — the workers' movement and business. However both institutions do not trust him for his lack of decisiveness in key challenges facing the country," Lumkile Mondi, an economist and lecturer at Wits Business School, told DW.

"For workers, he is seen as a proxy of business. He is aloof, lonely, and under him South Africa's economic and political crisis has deepened with violence, destruction of infrastructure and lawlessness," he added.

Johannesburg resident Lucie Mbele has three children and no job. She told DW she understands why the mineworkers at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium behaved as they did.

"The economy is very bad. Everything is going down. Food prices are going up. Everything is expensive — accommodation is expensive and there are no employment opportunities right now because most of the companies are closing because of the economy, " Mbele said.

"So to me it seems that the president is not doing enough to help the situation in the country right now."

Cyril Ramaphosa, Nelson Mandela and Jacob Zuma
Cyril Ramaphosa pictured with Nelson Mandela and Jacob Zuma in 1991 during negotations to end apartheidImage: Getty Images/AFP/W. Dhladhla

Four years into a new chapter 

After Ramaphosa won the 2018 presidential elections, South Africans were optimistic that with his extensive experience in the world of big business, he would be able to boost the economy fast enough to lift more people out of poverty.

But Ramaphosa inherited trouble and has had to oversee an inquiry into the state capture corruption that peaked under his predecessor, ANC veteran Jacob Zuma.

Meanwhile, government figures show that 18 million citizens are dependent on its social grant program.

The number of youths aged between 15 and 24 who are jobless hit a record high in late 2021.

"In terms of unemployment in the country, if the country has a 66.5% youth unemployment, that's really quite high," said Brian Sokutu, the political reporter.

"People are really crying out for jobs through youth empowerment."

Men at a road junction in Cape Town
Job seekers can be seen on key streets in virtually any of South Africa's townships and cities Image: Nic Bothma/EPA-EFE

Mining and corporate fat cats

Last year, Sibanye-Stillwater CEO Neal Froneman was awarded close to 300 million rand in remuneration in 2021, according to the company's annual report.

At the same time, the mining industry estimated that it would cost the same amount to help the government.

Often the remuneration of South Africa's mining lords and business tycoons grab headlines.

The average worker in the country earns 24 rand a month, according to a 2021 year-end survey by Statistics South Africa.

The younger generation is especially critical of figures such as Sibanye-Stillwater CEO Neal Froneman

"The criticism is justified in a country with deep economic and political challenges," said the economist Mondi.

However, he added, South African companies need leaders who "understand the challenges of community, climate change, governance and sustainability." 

In order to attract them, he said, they need to be remunerated similarly to their counterparts around the world.

Ramaphosa's outlook

Political analysts expect Ramaphosa to stay on as president after the next general election in 2024 even though the ANC faces several serious internal challenges, including ill-disciplined members and internal rivalries that have, in some cases, led to murder.

But, at the same time, the ANC has traditionally counted on workers to secure its majority vote at the polls.

While the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) is still a party ally, trade unions in general are splintered and overall membership is low.

Zwelinzima Vavi, the secretary general of the South African Federation of Trade Unions, recently said that more than 70% of citizens with jobs don't belong to a union. 

Capitalism and intimidation by employers were to blame, he said.

Last month, the hard left Economic Freedom Front (EFF) announced plans to set up a union, which would be affiliated to its party.

Edited by: Kate Hairsine