Cyril Ramaphosa waving at supporters in Ellis Park stadium in Johannesburg on Sunday.CreditCreditMarco Longari/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
JOHANNESBURG (THE NEW YORK TIMES) -- The country’s president needs a strong mandate to execute his reforms and to keep his corrupt colleagues in the African National Congress at bay.
South Africa goes to the polls on Wednesday in its fifth general election since the advent of democracy in 1994. I will hold my nose and vote for the African National Congress, once the party of Nelson Mandela.
I once passionately supported the A.N.C. I abandoned it a decade ago because of its arrogance, its muddle-headed policy and the way it turned my country into a kleptocracy, so soon after it delivered us so stunningly into democracy. In the past three elections I have voted for opposition parties because of the need to break the A.N.C.’s corrupting stranglehold on power. But the situation facing South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, has brought me back, at least for now.
Mr. Ramaphosa, who heads the A.N.C., needs a strong mandate to execute his reforms and to keep his corrupt comrades at bay. The kleptocrats within the A.N.C. still control the party and thus its list of candidates to Parliament.
They will not go quietly into obscurity, or jail, and will be looking for a pretext to fire Mr. Ramaphosa. They may so anyway after he wins them a victory — he is far more popular than the party. But a weak showing at the polls would only strengthen their hand.
Mr. Ramaphosa narrowly won the leadership of the party in December 2017, presenting himself as a clean and technocratic alternative to the systems of patronage that had set in around President Jacob Zuma. A few weeks later, Mr. Ramaphosa led an internal coup against Mr. Zuma, who had been found by the country’s constitutional court to be unfit for office because of misappropriation of state funds to improve his private residence.
Mr. Zuma had also all but sold his government to a corrupt cartel led by an Indian business family, the Guptas, in a process that became known in South Africa as “state capture.”
Mr. Ramaphosa is a former unionist who was the A.N.C.’s chief negotiator during the talks that led to the end of apartheid in 1994. He was Mr. Mandela’s first choice as successor, but when the party grandees chose Thabo Mbeki instead, he went into business. He leveraged his political connections to become one of South Africa’s richest men; his estimated worth is $550 million.
He decided to re-enter politics in 2012, when the party elected him Mr. Zuma’s deputy. He sat quietly by Mr. Zuma’s side as the Deputy President of South Africa as the evidence against his boss accumulated. Many South Africans cannot forgive him for this, but Mr. Ramaphosa plays the long game.
He is the first South African leader since Mr. Mandela with broad appeal across this divided country’s races and classes. His famed ability to bring people together is being tested now as he tries to coax international investors with market-friendly incentives while also enacting populist A.N.C. policies, such as changing the Constitution to speed up land reform. The party has resolved to expropriate land from white owners without having to offer them compensation.
Unlike his predecessor, Mr. Ramaphosa has an energetic plan to revive South Africa’s stagnant economy — an absolute necessity as unemployment is at 27 percent. In the 15 months he has been in power he has not yet managed to stimulate economic renewal. But he has made significant progress in fighting corruption.
Mr. Ramaphosa cannily appointed independent commissions of inquiry and used their findings to fire the leadership at the South African Revenue Service and the National Prosecuting Authority, which were seen as two of the most “captured” critical organs of state. He chose competent technocrats as replacements. Although there is not, yet, much to show for it, their credibility — and Mr. Ramaphosa’s own — rests on their ability to investigate and prosecute Mr. Zuma, his cronies and their enablers.
And Mr. Ramaphosa has appointed Raymond Zondo, the deputy chief justice, to head the Commission of Inquiry Into State Capture, Corruption and Fraud. South Africans are transfixed by the proceedings of the commission, which are broadcast live almost every day. The revelations run from tawdry micro-seductions (a Louis Vuitton handbag stuffed with cash) to macro-estimates (the calculation that Mr. Zuma’s 2015 attempt to appoint a lackey as finance minister cost the economy $34 billion).
A former deputy finance minister, Mcebesi Jonas, recounted how the Gupta brothers tried to bribe him, but he cautioned the commission not to “over Zuma-nise” its investigations. To do so would be to miss the point, which is that the systems of patronage and corruption exemplified by Mr. Zuma are deeply embedded in government and in the A.N.C.
The rot starts at the municipal level, where it seems to have become the norm to obtain state tenders through bribery. In “How to Steal a City,” Crispian Olver, an A.N.C. insider, describes the way competing political factions in the city of Port Elizabeth were criminal cartels vying for government gravy. One of these factions comprises Mr. Ramaphosa’s strongest supporters in the Eastern Cape Province. And the A.N.C.’s own integrity commission has reportedly found fault with 22 of the candidates on the party’s electoral list. This is why I am holding my nose.
Others are simply turning away from a contest that offers no attractive alternative to the A.N.C. and Mr. Ramaphosa. His opponent to the right is Mmusi Maimane, a smooth but shallow preacher whose party, the Democratic Alliance, cannot break out of an ethnic ghetto: Its supporters are members of the white, Indian and colored minorities. His opponent to the left is Julius Malema, a gifted populist, who calls for land invasions and the nationalization of the economy. The growing constituency of Mr. Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters party consists of the marginalized urban poor.
Most of those who vote will, still, cast their ballots for the A.N.C. Some will do so because, like me, they wish to give Mr. Ramaphosa a chance. Others will do so for reasons more atavistic (this is the liberation party) or pragmatic (this is the party that runs the show). Polls suggest, however, that the A.N.C. majority will drop down a few points from the 62.2 percent it garnered in 2014. The beneficiary will be Mr. Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters party.
But fewer South Africans will be voting on Wednesday. In 1994, 86 percent of the eligible voters cast their vote. Ten million of South Africa’s 36.9 million voters have not even bothered to register. Most of these are under 30.
More than one in three of these are unemployed. Too many South Africans are becoming alienated politically and disenfranchised economically. I am voting for the A.N.C. in the hope that Cyril Ramaphosa — and the team he will hopefully assemble around him, once he has a popular mandate — can begin to change this devastating course.
Mark Gevisser is the author, most recently, of “Lost and Found in Johannesburg: A Memoir.”