Source: Financial Times

Criticism comes from all sides after second slide into recession within two years

People who don’t want Ramaphosa to get a second term as president of the ANC are already mobilising – Sithembile Mbete, University of Pretoria


“These are trying and testing times,” President Cyril Ramaphosa said last week as he surveyed the dire state of South Africa’s economy.

South Africa is officially in a recession for the second time in two years, rolling blackouts have disrupted daily life for weeks and the Treasury is forecasting the biggest fiscal deficit in the post-apartheid era. The economic outlook is worse than at any point since Mr Ramaphosa took control of the ruling African National Congress in 2018 promising to overturn a decade of misrule.

There is a growing sense that he may have already lost the battle.

A former union leader and then business titan, Mr Ramaphosa promised to be a president capable of reviving the economy while managing the competing interests of business, organised labour and the ruling party.

But after winning the leadership of the ANC by the narrowest of margins he has been unable to build the authority necessary to force through change, analysts say. “It doesn’t seem as if he’s bought any loyalty. That is what is so peculiar about the position he is in . . . the biggest theme of the last two years is that he hasn’t been able to stamp his authority over the operations of government,” Sithembile Mbete, a political scientist at the University of Pretoria, said.

Mr Ramaphosa says he prefers to reach negotiated solutions rather than force through directives. “I build consensus . . . not give in to shouting and screaming,” he told the gathering of South African media.

He helped to negotiate a peaceful end to white minority rule in the struggle against apartheid. In the post-apartheid business world, he was in demand as a chairman and director.

But his critics say the time of consensus-building is over and that decisive action is needed. Income per capita fell for a fifth consecutive year in 2019.  “[Mr Ramaphosa] is hugely cautious — he is quite tied often to the process of doing things far more than the outcome,” Ms Mebte, the political scientist said. “There is obviously room for social compacting, and a necessity for it. But at some point you have got to make some decisions.”

Too often his initiatives, including plans to open up Eskom’s ageing coal plants to greater competition by licensing more independent power suppliers and a risky effort to save South African Airways, the near-bankrupt flag carrier, have been held up by political bickering.

Mr Ramaphosa said he hoped the acuteness of the economic crisis would finally encourage his spoilers to desist. “I like to believe we have entered an era where there is no longer any objection to reforms and transformation . . . we will be repositioning our economy for further investments,” he said. There are some signs that a tougher government line is starting to emerge.

Last month Tito Mboweni, Mr Ramaphosa’s pugnacious finance minister, risked the ire of organised labour with a pledge to cut over $10bn from bloated public wages. Mr Mboweni “delivered substance over bluster, something for [which] we have been crying out”, said Busi Mavuso, the chief executive of Business Leadership South Africa, a private sector lobby group.

But while the planned spending cuts have pleased business, they have antagonised the unions, many of which have been among Mr Ramaphosa’s few allies in his battles inside the ANC. Previously Mr Ramaphosa has deflected criticism by emphasising his shock — despite serving as vice-president under his predecessor, Jacob Zuma — over the level of unchecked corruption that he found inside state institutions after taking power.

But public confidence in that defence has faded with the absence of prosecutions. Rumours of an imminent blitz of arrests of tainted ANC bosses have come to nothing and a landmark inquiry into systemic corruption under the former president has missed its original deadline, with officials saying it will need more time.

Mr Ramaphosa regularly reminds voters that the president cannot order prosecutions: “The day a president acts as a judge, executioner and everything else, we must run for the hills,” he has said. In the meantime, those with the most to lose from the anti-corruption battle are free to organise against him.

In July ANC members will attend their biggest meeting since Mr Ramaphosa became leader, officially to review the party’s policies midterm. The meeting has no authority to remove Mr Ramaphosa as party leader but analysts say his enemies will use the process to burnish their populist credentials and attack him for not enacting more radical policies such as nationalising the central bank — ideas that spook investors but fire up the party faithful.

“The people who don’t want Ramaphosa to get a second term as president of the ANC are already mobilising and organising,” Ms Mbete said. This year’s meeting will afford them a show of strength and reveal who is vying to replace him, she said.

For now, Mr Ramaphosa insists the ANC will give him a second term, though his confidence may be fading.  “Stick around,” he said this week. “You may see this movie again.”