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PoliticsSouth Africa

South Africa's Ramaphosa clears way for second term

Cristina Krippahl
December 20, 2022

By reelecting Cyril Ramaphosa as party leader, the ANC has shown it trusts him to win the 2024 presidential election. But Ramaphosa faces an uphill struggle to convince voters the ruling party is still their best bet.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa holds his hands in the arm in victory
President Cyril Ramaphosa (center) was reelected leader of the ANC on MondayImage: Denis Farrell/AP Photo/picture alliance

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has been reelected to the African National Congress' (ANC) leadership, despite being mired in a financial scandal and facing a strong campaign by his opponents within the party.

In the race against his rival, former Health Minister Zweli Mkhize, Ramaphosa increased his share of the vote from 51% in 2017 to 56% on Monday, a development that came as no surprise to most analysts. 

Christopher Vandome, senior researcher at Britain's Chatham House think tank, also stressed that most of the newly elected seven-member team at the top of the party were Ramaphosa supporters.

''It means that he's going to find it easier to get through some of his policy agenda, particularly his agenda for the party,'' Vandome told DW from Johannesburg.

ANC supporters holding up an image of President Cyril Ramaphosa
ANC membership has dropped by a third over the last five yearsImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/J. Delay

Cabinet reshuffle may be in the cards

Ramaphosa may need all the help he can get. The ANC is profoundly divided, with a faction around former President Jacob Zuma, spearheaded by Mkhize, resisting attempts at reforms.

''Mkhize won the backing of 43% of delegates, in part by promising plum posts to party power brokers. The results underscore that Ramaphosa faces substantial opposition within the ANC,'' Aleix Montana, Africa analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, told The Associated Press news agency.

But even Ramaphosa's opponents in the ANC leadership will have to tread carefully. Paul Mashatile, the newly elected deputy president, wasn't part of Ramaphosa's campaign. Still, ''given Mashatile's own political ambitions potentially for the presidency later, I think that he'll play a constructive rather than a disruptive game,'' said Vandome.

Two of Ramaphosa's main critics within his Cabinet were sidelined. Cooperative Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma declined a nomination to run for ANC president. Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, an outspoken critic of the president, appeared isolated at the conference, leading to speculations that a Cabinet reshuffle may be imminent.

A 'mammoth task' ahead for Ramaphosa

The ANC does need to take steps to regain the trust of many voters disenchanted with the party. A report presented during the congress over the weekend showed that membership had dropped by a third over the past five years. A year ago, the ANC won just 46% of the vote in municipal elections, remaining below the 50% bar for the first time in the history of South Africa's democracy.

People in the township of Soweto sit by candellight
Energy cuts are crippling South Africa's economyImage: Siphiwe Sibeko/REUTERS

Reforming the party is just one aspect of the ''mammoth task'' ahead for Ramaphosa, political analyst Lukhona Mnguni told DW. Pressing problems include crippling nationwide power cuts of more than seven hours a day, an unemployment rate of 35% and widespread reports of corruption. ''Interest rates are rising because of inflation'' and there is a ''sheer lack of reforms'' to steer the economy into growth, Mnguni added.

Ramaphosa will also have to deal with his personal problems. Just last week, the ANC majority averted a parliamentary motion to start impeachment proceedings in the wake of the so-called Farmgate scandal, involving large sums of foreign currency found hidden at his private game farm.

Will Ramaphosa prevail in 2024?

But while the party is losing support, Ramaphosa's popularity is still relatively high, a fact that did not escape party members voting for the new leadership. Farmgate seems unlikely to further dent the popularity of the former union official, who made a fortune in the years that interrupted his political career.

The wall and logo of President Ramaphosa's Phala Phala Wildlife Farm in Bela Bela
President Ramaphosa's game farm is at the center of a financial scandalImage: AP Photo/picture alliance

''It's well known in South Africa that he was a beneficiary of that kind of swath of politically linked persons going into the private sector and making money,'' said Vandome. But this wasn't an issue with the public or even his political opponents. ''Some people see it as a positive that he has got that business background,'' the analyst added.

It remains to be seen if the president's popularity will be enough to lead the ANC into another uncontested victory in 2024. People are ''increasingly fed up'' with his failure to deliver upon promises like fixing the energy problem and creating jobs, Vandome said.

Coalition governments could be in South Africa's future

The weakening of the ANC has started a public debate about future political coalitions at the national level. This, Vandome said, was a significant development in a country that has only ever known one-party rule, including during apartheid.

The possibility is real, the analyst believed, ''but I don't I don't think that it would be a unified coalition in the same way that you see in Germany.'' Rather, there could be agreements between parties to cooperate on certain issues and allow the passing of legislation.

While this could increase the risk of disruption, ''it could also be a step into more pluralistic politics here in South Africa,'' said Vandome.

South Africa suffers record power cuts

Thuso Khumalo contributed to this article.
Edited by: Keith Walker