One of the things FW de Klerk hated with a passion was being referred to as the last apartheid president. He and those close to him would have preferred something much more positive and complimentary and considered it an epithet.
It looks like President Cyril Ramaphosa might find himself fighting a similar appellation not long from now. After the outcome of this month’s local government elections and this week’s loss of metros and other major cities to the opposition, Ramaphosa may in the next two years be referred to as South Africa’s last ANC president.
It is early days yet, but indications are strong that the ANC will not be able to form the national government on its own after the 2024 general election and, given the hostility of the significant opposition parties towards it, it will be ousted from power. The November 1 election sent a clear message that South Africans want a divorce.
Then, this week, the opposition ganged up on the ANC, uniting across ideological lines with the intention that it must be kept out of power.
It is a far cry from 2018 when Ramaphosa came into office. He injected optimism and positivity into a dejected nation. In the 2019 general election, his personal popularity was credited with minimising the ANC’s electoral slide and returning a respectable 57.5% majority. It is generally accepted, even in ANC circles, that if it had been the name and face of his 2017 conference rival Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma on the ballot, the outcome would have been disastrous for the party.
Even though she had no corruption taints, Dlamini-Zuma was too closely associated with the state capture faction that had backed her candidacy and was unfortunately still seen to be linked to her ex-beau. In addition, she was just super dour and would have put an entire Siyanqoba rally simultaneously to sleep.
Going into the 2019 election, the party had to be seen to be taking a major step away from its sordid immediate past. Although Ramaphosa had been at Zuma’s right hand since the 2012 elective conference, he was seen as the individual to do so.
In the 2016 local government elections, the ANC was punished for its national sins. Disgusted by incumbent Jacob Zuma and the rest of the state capture brigade, ANC supporters switched allegiances or stayed away from the polls. Either way, they were voting against the corruption that had embedded itself in the party’s culture.Ramaphosa was supposed to endear traditional ANC supporters to the party again and bring all the prodigal children back into the fold.
It worked quite well in 2019. The party may have dropped a few percentage points, but things could have been much worse.
However, the ANC came to rely way too much on Ramaphosa’s popularity. While promising renewal and a change of direction, the party continued on its same path. Corruption did not slow down; service delivery deteriorated; the disconnection between its public representative and communities remained stark, and poverty and inequality showed no signs of being arrested.
In fact, disgruntlement with the ANC government has grown in the past three years as communities experienced devastating electricity cuts; breakdowns in water supply; sewerage running down streets and roads dangerously falling apart. No amount of Ramaphosa charm could change that lived reality.Knowing that the president’s popularity outstripped that of the party, the ANC centred the recent election campaign on its leader and sought to capitalise on the perceived superior trust that the voters would presumably have in him.
But even he got a major shock at the anger his entourage encountered at many stops on the campaign trail. He was heckled by angry residents who had been subjected to indignities by his party. In its once impenetrable heartland of Soweto, residents on more than one occasion erected barricades in a bid to prevent Ramaphosa from getting to campaign venues. The former liberation movement had never seen such hostility towards it from those who had loyally put their trust in it election after election after election.
Wherever he went, Ramaphosa tried to reassure once-loyal communities that the ANC had learnt its lesson. Communities didn’t buy that lame line, as the election results showed. This time the punishment was definitive. So definitive that the opposition parties were able to claim that it was the people’s wish that the ANC not be let near the levers of power, as they ganged up on it.
Ramaphosa exuded some bravado earlier this month, apparently still in the belief that the ANC was in a strong negotiating position.
He told an ANC gathering in the aftermath of the results:I have been hearing parties saying they will not go into coalition with the ANC and that made me wonder, who said the ANC wants to get into partnerships with them? It’s okay, we are not on our knees and begging, and if we have to be in opposition then we will be in opposition. We will not go cap in hand to everybody; we are the ANC.
Well, that’s exactly what happened. The ANC is on the opposition benches in the most significant metros and many other cities. And, by the way things are going, it will be on the opposition benches in several provinces and possibly nationally by 2024.
It used to be accepted wisdom that the ANC’s lease on power would run out in the 2029 election when the voter demographic tilted towards those who did not remember apartheid and were not beholden to liberation mythology. The strange thing, though, is that this particular demographic is hardly interested in partaking in the democratic process. So they are hardly the change factor that they could be. Rather, it is the older ones, who do remember apartheid and when the liberation movement was worth mythologising, who are part of the change. They are the ones who are accelerating the ANC’s exit from power in the cities and, to a lesser extent, the more rural towns.
Now, should any of the opposition parties offer the younger generation something to be excited about, as the EFF was doing earlier in its life, the ANC would be completely sidelined. As things stand though, the youth are exercising power in absentia. It remains to be seen whether, between now and 2024, anyone can get them to exercise their power in its real form.
Following this month’s humuliation, Ramaphosa will go into 2022 conferences with multiple lasers pointed at different parts of his anatomy. He seemed to have the upper hand in the battle against those in the party who wanted him gone. But this was a catastrophe not only for his party, but for him politically. Whereas he was being nailed for failing to implement the Nasrec resolutions, he will now be accused of costing the party power and this will be weaponised to get rid of him at next December’s national conference.
If he survives and makes it to the 2024 elections, the likelihood is high that the campaign will be his farewell tour. In his mind, he will believe that he is wooing the people to give him one more term, but in fact he will be waving them goodbye, on his own behalf and on behalf of his party. Its stranglehold on national power will be over.
Unless the opposition messes up really badly in the next 24 months – a big possibility – this will be the last term of an ANC president. And Ramaphosa will have to live with that unfortunate label.
–-Mondli Makhanya is the Editor-In-Chief of City Press