Durban last week provided a glimpse of an emerging coalition of forces working to undermine President Ramaphosa. And if you thought the DA had issues, some of the potential fallout here could make the Opposition’s problems seem like the proverbial Sunday school picnic.
Para-military dancers, Supra Mahumapelo, Black Land First, Umkhonto We Sizwe (MK) and a host of other beneficiaries of patronage and protection under former President Jacob Zuma’s rule displayed their support not only for the legally embattled ex-first citizen, but also for an alternative discourse on both policy and governance in the country.
Using President Zuma’s court trial as a conduit for discontent, the motley crew of Ramaphosa-dissidents were seemingly laying the foundation for an alternative political discourse within the ANC – at least for the immediate future as the 2019 election looms.
Under the ruse of the Zuma trial, the subliminal message was two-fold. Firstly, it was a reflection of deep disgruntlement with the reforms undertaken by President Ramaphosa to clean house within most state-owned enterprises, state-capture deals and other nefarious deep-state related business deals.
The last decade of the crony-state has left many now facing either prosecution, a lack of political power or indeed, a return to personal levels of poverty. The reformer Ramaphosa is therefore at the centre of an emerging ‘fight-back’ from those formally on the political and business-related coattails of former President Zuma who feel particularly to this change.
When you face this level of insecurity, you make a move. And we are seeing that now beyond the confines of the already volatile KwaZulu-Natal to Supra’s North West (where he remains ANC Chair) and to the Free State where now-suspended Dihlabeng Municipality Mayor Lindiwe Makhalema was not shy to articulate her opposition to Ramaphosa.
But the anti-Ramaphosa rhetoric is currently couched in support for Jacob Zuma who is seen as a conduit for discontent. Those backing Zuma see him as their front-of-house figurehead – symbolic of what is wrong with the new power brokers who are intent on a witch-hunt to unseat the privileges of the outgoing administration.
However, it is not sufficient for the issue to rest just on Jacob Zuma and the fear of the consequences of malfeasance in the associated patronage network. The discontents are taking an increasingly ‘radical’ tone on economic policy options which includes motivating for the illegal occupation of land as the Black Land First movement provides a more concrete populist platform to the larger grouping.
The seeds of a more cohesive message from the informal Zuma coalition forces is therefore being planted which will contradict substantially with Ramaphosa’s more nuanced approach on Land Expropriation now less likely to include a constitutional change.
In the short-term, the discontent will seek to undermine the ANC from within by vigorously defending their support for the party but simultaneously articulating an alternative narrative – one which they hope will find greater traction as Ramaphosa struggles to get a grip on the economy and produce real results in the run-up to the 2019 polls.
And here, therefore, is the nexus between these theatrics and the state of the current economy. Despite the dismal South African GDP figures this last week, Ramaphosa’s remains the darling of the investor community – and to a substantial degree – the middle classes who relate well to his measured, moderate and motivational messages.
But on the ground, in the dusty back-yards of informal settlements, there is little cheer for commuters facing even more transport hikes as a result of the triple burden of fuel taxes, rising oil process and a weak currency. There is little cheer for those coughing up more and more in electricity bills, weekly food purchases, waiting in long lines for sub-standard health-care or for those unable to enter formal employment.
So whilst the Zuma discontents have their own more narrow reasons for supporting him, Ramaphosa faces a much more bread-and-butter problem in the homes of millions of South Africans. If he cannot get a handle on the economic malaise, he runs the danger that the Zuma discontents can find a more fertile ground amongst those who want to like Ramaphosa but see little improvement on the ground to justify it.
Whilst conjecture like this may be just that, the last few local government by-election rounds give us some indication that President Ramaphosa is not translating his message of a ‘new dawn’ into electoral support. Only last week, in wards in Mpumalanga and the North-West, ANC support levels dropped dramatically by between 20-30%.
Whilst voters may be punishing the dismal state of service delivery in these areas, the ANC has been unable to rely on the Ramaphosa factor to shore up its vote. Only in the Western Cape, where the DA has been under its own state of distress, has the ANC seen electoral gains.
In rural South Africa, the new President – and his message of economic turnaround - is not resonating that well with his traditional support base and the ANC vote there remains more fluid than before.
This should be highly concerning for the ANC. It has a new President and is taking action against the old – and those in the patronage network – yet this is not yet winning the hearts and minds of its voters.
Add to this the ANC losses in KZN to the IFP and it is clear that despite the support from the middle-classes (both black and white), Ramaphosa has yet to lock in a much broader-base ANC voter.
With economic progress delayed again as a result of poor economic data, voters increasingly are being asked to provide Ramaphosa with a ‘leap of faith’ vote – one that gives him the mandate in the absence of real turnaround on the ground.
This is exacerbated by a more combative trade-union environment in which workers are resisting not only the state’s very moderate minimum wage boost, but increasingly lower wage increases (or as in the case with Eskom, 0% increase).
These tensions create the ultimate tension - that of whether President Ramaphosa runs the risk of being internally sabotaged as he moves to secure a critical election victory.
Always vulnerable to the poisoned chalice that Jacob Zuma bequeathed to him, the discontents will seek to weaken Ramaphosa and the best way for them would be to see him struggle at the polls. After all, Ramaphosa still does not have a mandate and would be even more vulnerable if he cannot get the ANC safely over the 50%-mark next year.
Whilst Ramaphosa cannot be defeated within the NEC and related structures over the next year, his non-performance at the polls is his real Achilles heel. And a deteriorating economic environment coupled with intra-party factionalism and security concerns does not help. The current levels of destabilization within KZN also adds to Ramaphosa’s problems in securing a strong victory come next year.
President Ramaphosa then – ironically – is succeeding in keeping the middle classes relatively on-board. But in his own back-yard, economic and internecine political distress threatens to undermine this. Ramaphosa’s opponents know they have leverage here and are beginning to play their hand.
It does point to a more unstable election year – one in which Ramaphosa may begin to realize that he has at least as many friends outside of the ANC as he does inside. And that can make for further political realignments in future.
Daniel Silke is Director of the Political Futures Consultancy www.danielsilkeglobal.com
This article first appeared on Fin24.