Even with a decisive election victory for South Africa’s ruling party this week, the country’s President Cyril Ramaphosa could still struggle to push through the tough reforms needed to galvanize Africa’s most developed economy, say analysts and some party insiders.
The former union leader turned business tycoon has promised to introduce major economic reforms and extend a crackdown on corruption if his African National Congress (ANC) party is returned to power in Wednesday’s national election. Ramaphosa’s allies say a result close to 60 percent in this week’s parliamentary vote, which some opinion polls suggest could be possible, would strengthen his hand to deliver on those pledges.
But some analysts and ANC party insiders are skeptical that Ramaphosa would make much progress with reforms, even with a clear election victory. They cite his tenuous grip over the party’s decision-making bodies, where former comrades in the struggle against the brutal apartheid regime are at each other’s throats in a high-stakes battle for power and wealth.
“Ramaphosa needs a united ANC to achieve his agenda, but he doesn’t have that,” said a veteran ANC politician who did not wish to be identified discussing internal rivalries. “His enemies are going nowhere.”
Ralph Mathekga, a political analyst and author of a book on Ramaphosa, echoed the view. “There’s a herd mentality that if Ramaphosa gets a strong majority for the ANC, it will somehow strengthen him. That’s not the case,” he said.
Ramaphosa disputes that his hands will be tied if he is returned to power. At a campaign event last week in Johannesburg he said there would be a “step-change” in the pace of reform and that the economy was ready for lift off. “Our government is now going to open up the valves of our economy and give our people an opportunity,” he said.
Ramaphosa became leader of the ANC in December 2017 after narrowly defeating a faction allied with his scandal-plagued predecessor Jacob Zuma. This will be Ramaphosa’s first national election since taking over as head of state in February 2018, after roughly four years as Zuma’s deputy.
The president is under pressure to address gaping racial disparities in income and wealth that persist 25 years after the end of white minority rule. He also wants to reverse a slide in support for the ANC, which has governed South Africa since 1994 but in recent years has lost support in major cities like the financial and political capitals of Johannesburg and Pretoria.
In the 15 months since he took office, Ramaphosa has been forced into uneasy compromises in key policy areas like land reform and fixing struggling state power firm Eskom, opposition politicians say.
Ramaphosa has vowed to accelerate the redistribution of land to the black majority, endorsing an opposition bill to amend the constitution to make expropriation without compensation easier.
But he also has offered assurances that investments and food security would not be threatened. In doing so, he satisfied neither radical left-wing nor business-friendly factions within his governing alliance and the opposition.
On Eskom, the president has promised trade unions that there will be no layoffs as part of a turnaround plan, even though company management and energy experts say the utility’s bloated workforce is one of its biggest problems.
Getting land reform right and repairing Eskom will be critical to restoring investor confidence in an economy where growth has slowed to a trickle due to a toxic mix of corruption scandals and regulatory upheaval during Zuma’s tenure.
“If you see progress in the clean-up of state-owned enterprises like Eskom that would mean that big headache that investors have would fade away,” said Tilmann Kolb, analyst at the financial services firm UBS Global Wealth Management.