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What’s next for Ramaphosa as South Africa heads to the Polls?

Just 15 months ago, President Cyril Ramaphosa became South Africa’s new head of state following the long-awaited departure of President Jacob Zuma. Now on the 8th of May, South Africa will hold its 6th national and provincial elections, marking 25 years since the fall of apartheid. How will Ramaphosa fare, as the country battles a slow-burn economic crisis, an electricity sector meltdown and simmering discontent among all strata of society?

As noted previously in these pages, Jacob Zuma was removed in February 2018 to allow the ANC to revive their waning electoral legitimacy and clean up the party’s image in the wake of damaging scandals. After the party’s bruising loss of major municipalities in the 2016 local government elections and the decline of the ANC’s national tally to just 54%, most pundits predicted that the Zuma-effect would pull the ANC under the 50% threshold in 2019.

Enter Cyril Ramaphosa. Having served as Zuma’s deputy for the last four years of the Zuma presidency, the sceptics noted that he had said and done little as the scandals piled up and the evidence overwhelmingly showed that the Zuma administration was intent on personalising the proceeds of the state for himself and his friends. But nonetheless, his ascendance as ANC and state president was greeted with hope and optimism, a welcome break from the deepening gloom that marked the end of the Zuma presidency.

This positive sentiment – dubbed ‘Ramaphoria’ – bolstered the currency, helped stave off a downgrade to ‘junk status’ by Moody’s and left the middle class sleeping a little easier. But it wouldn’t last long. Before long it became clear that there was a fight-back from the Zuma camp, and that many of the worst leaders from his cabal had remained within the upper echelons of the party and state. Ramaphosa inherited defunct institutions, a vastly increased state debt burden and an electricity crisis prompted by corruption, mismanagement and rapid debt accumulation.

The battle of the pollsters

Polling has relatively consistently – and somewhat unsurprisingly – pointed to yet another victory for the ANC at the national level. An Ipsos poll conducted between March and April predicts a minor recovery for the ANC from the 2016 polls – suggesting a final tally of 61% for the ANC, 19% for the Democratic Alliance and 11% for the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

But a new poll released by the Institute for Race Relations (a Johannesburg-based conservative think tank) has suggested that the ANC’s numbers will fall even further this year than they did in the last local elections, and that the ruling party is likely to lose again in major metros and is likely to lose Gauteng – the country’s economic heartland – entirely to other parties. The IRR poll suggests that the party will take 49.5% nationally (on a predicted turnout of 100% of eligible voters) and 51% on a 71.9% turnout scenario. The same poll places the DA at 21.3% (100% turnout) or 24% on a 71.9% turnout scenario while the EFF takes between 14.9% and 14% across the two.

Of course, a 100% turnout scenario is unlikely – and levels of apathy across the country appear to be reaching alarming levels. Almost one in four eligible voters – nearly ten million people – declined to register, and another 5 million are expected not to turn out based upon previous turnout levels. The electoral commission’s data suggests that most of the disaffected are in urban areas – the most populous province, Gauteng, had the lowest registration rate at 67.1% of eligible voters. Young voters in particular seem to be staying away, with just 18% of the country’s 18-19 year olds registering, and a little over 50% of 20-29 year olds.

This will likely hamper the EFF’s electoral fortunes and play to the ruling party’s advantage. Older voters are more likely to vote on historical lines while younger voters generally express far more dissatisfaction with the slow pace of transformation over the last 25 years and have fewer deep historical ties to the ANC. But between these two polls, it is probably reasonable to expect that (barring a major crisis in the next 6 days) the ANC will likely win these elections with between 50-60% of the vote, that the EFF will make the most substantial gains amongst the opposition and the DA will maintain its place as the country’s formal opposition but fail to capitalise sufficiently on the discontent in the country.

What comes next?

In some ways the election represents a continuation of the status quo – that the ANC will continue a slow electoral slide, but that the two major opposition parties are unlikely to be sufficiently able to take advantage of growing public discontent to displace the ruling party. What will be more interesting to watch is what happens at provincial level.

Africa Confidential reports that at the provincial level, Zuma-supporters with a strong provincial base are encouraging voters to undermine the ruling party at national level by voting ANC provincially, but voting for other parties in the national polls. Several weeks ago, Zuma himself endorsed the populist Black First Land First movement-turned-party. It is alleged that some within this camp hope to use poor national election result to try to remove Ramaphosa in a special elective congress. For his part, Ramaphosa is believed to still be trying to clear some of Zuma’s allies out of the ANC using a Special Investigation Unit tribunal which will be established immediately following the polls.

This factionalism within the ANC is unlikely to be quickly resolved following the polls, and the country will still have to face the current dire economic circumstances. With persistently high unemployment figures (at 37%), unsustainable debt levels (50% of GDP) and low appetite for foreign investment, the country will remain in a sticky economic position. It remains to be seen which way Ramaphosa will take the ANC and whether he will pursue a more market-friendly growth path that potentially worsens the plight of some of South Africa’s poorest.

Ramaphosa has previously shown his proclivity for ‘order’ over fairness during the Marikana strikes, while his recent xenophobic statements on the campaign trail and support for entrenching traditional authorities’ control over rural communities appears to demonstrate a preference for expedience over principle. He will have to tread a fine path to walk South Africa back from the brink and help to build an inclusive and equitable economy. Cyril Ramaphosa needs to be up to the task – or he risks rushing the country down an ever more precarious path.