As South Africa prepares to head to the polls in a crucial general election on Wednesday, President Cyril Ramaphosa faces a stern challenge to restore waning faith in the African National Congress (ANC) party, after more than a decade of rampant corruption and misrule.
At his inauguration speech days later, Ramaphosa promised a “new dawn” for the floundering ruling party after its unprecedentedly poor performance in 2016 local elections.
But since an initial wave of what many South African pundits termed “Ramaphoria”, the president has been burdened by a raft of challenges, including deep-set factions and patronage networks within the ANC, as well as stuttering economic growth, exacerbated by regular power outages and high unemployment.
While polls suggest that the party will retain its majority in parliament after Wednesday’s vote, widespread protests and shutdowns in under-served townships and informal settlements across South Africa in recent weeks have highlighted disillusionment with the ANC.
The sprawling Johannesburg township of Alexandra has become a prominent battleground and a pertinent symbol of the malaise in South African society, with opposition parties regularly citing it as a damning example of the ANC’s failures.
Local community leaders estimate youth unemployment in the township stands at more than 50 percent, while it has also been the site of violent xenophobic attacks and illegal land occupations amid a spiralling housing crisis.
Nhlanhla Ruben, a 23-year-old Alexandra resident who works as an Uber driver and previously voted ANC, told Al Jazeera that while he liked Ramaphosa and thought he was “trying to do a good job,” he would not be voting at all this year.
“I don’t see any benefit,” he told Al Jazeera. “Most people I know living here feel the same way.”
A number of polls indicate that Ramaphosa’s personal popularity ratings far exceed those of his party. Sheila Meintjes, an associate professor at the University of Witwatersrand, said: “Although Ramaphosa is widely seen as someone who has the gravitas and the capability to take the country in a new direction, the difficulty is that people have lost a lot of trust.”
Various commissions of inquiry set up by Ramaphosa to investigate and expose so-called state capture, where private interests have had undue influence on the issuance of state contracts, as well as corruption, have further illustrated the extent of the president’s task.
“Ramaphosa may be enormously popular within society at large, but the internal dynamics and battles within the ANC will be bloody and ongoing long after Ramaphosa is inaugurated as the next president of the country,” Eusebius McKaiser, a local political commentator and radio host told Al Jazeera. “The war against corruption won’t be won in the short term. The rot simply runs too deep.”
Investors have also been spooked by Ramaphosa’s controversial move, prompted by pressure from the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and some members of his own party, to amend South Africa’s constitution to explicitly allow expropriation of privately-owned land, mainly from white farmers, without compensation. Some political commentators and opposition leaders have also questioned his perceived inaction as deputy president during Zuma’s ruinous tenure.
But through his history as a trade union leader and as Nelson Mandela’s lead negotiator in the transition from apartheid rule in the early 1990s, Ramaphosa has developed a reputation as a patient and pragmatic strategist.
With many Zuma allies still in his cabinet, Meintjes told Al Jazeera that Ramaphosa has had to “walk on eggshells” in the run-up to elections, in the hope that he can secure a substantial enough majority at the polls to “clean up” the party.
In a little over a year in office, he has already made some important gains. Two substantial cabinet reshuffles in 2018 removed a number of allegedly compromised MPs and Ramaphosa has installed new leadership at various state-owned institutions, including the floundering national energy provider Eskom and the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa.
He also appointed a special investigative task team that has made inroads in stemming the previously-neglected scourge of political killings in the embattled province of KwaZulu-Natal, which has often been linked to corruption at municipal government level.
At a major ANC rally at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park stadium on Sunday, Ramaphosa reassured attendees that any ANC members implicated in corruption and state capture “will not be allowed to occupy positions of responsibility; either in the ANC, in parliament or in government.”
Phephelaphi Dube, a constitutional expert, agreed with Meintjes’ assertion that the president has so far been hampered in this clean-up process by the precariousness of his position within a still-divided party.
“The real test is whether such individuals will face prosecution [after the elections],” she added.
The ANC’s manifesto for this year’s elections has also promised to grow South Africa’s economy, create more jobs, speed up sluggish land reform and move towards implementing free education for students from poor and working-class backgrounds. But critics have argued that Ramaphosa has been vague on how his policies would be implemented.
Meintjes said that many of her university students remained unconvinced and were more drawn to the EFF, which is predicted to make significant gains at this year’s polls, particularly with younger voters.
She also suggested that a number of voters, disillusioned with mainstream politics more broadly, were either turning to smaller parties or declining to vote altogether.
“I’m not sure Ramaphosa is going to get enough of a majority to make the kinds of changes that he really wants or needs to,” she said. “Whatever happens at the polls, I don’t think he’s going to have an easy time.”