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Cyril Ramaphosa: Worst captain of South Africa since democracy?

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Picture: Christophe Petit Tesson / EPA / Taken on October 28 2023 – South African President Cyril Ramaphosa lifts the Webb Ellis trophy after the team won the Rugby World Cup 2023 final between New Zealand and South Africa in Saint-Denis, France, October 28. For just a moment in time Ramaphosa was at the centre of the world, taking the glory for something that he had little part in, the writer says.

By Kim Heller

An elated Cyril Ramaphosa spoke of the Springbok win at the Rugby World Cup as both extraordinary and inspiring. The ecstatic President of South Africa lifted the coveted trophy above his head. It was a photo opportunity of a lifetime. One that not even millions of dollars could have bought. For just a moment in time Ramaphosa was at the centre of the world, taking the glory for something that he had little part in.

The President of South Africa said: “The journey of the Springboks to the historic victory in the 2023 Rugby World Cup is as much about our journey towards nationhood as it is about sporting excellence. It is as much about our quest to ensure that representation in all facets of public life, including sport, stands as a potent symbol of the cherished values upon which this country was founded.”

Picture: Thomas Samson / AFP / Taken on October 28 – South Africa’s flanker and captain Siya Kolisi, centre, holds the Webb Ellis Cup with President of South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa, centre-left, as South Africa’s players celebrate winning the France 2023 Rugby World Cup final match against New Zealand at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, on the outskirts of Paris, on October 28.

As the victory tour of South Africa’s rugby team begins to spin through the streets of the nation, President Ramaphosa will, undoubtedly, once again claim pride of place. But the President is no hero. His reign as President of the ANC and of South Africa has been totally uninspiring. Many of the market and political analysts who once spoke so confidently of the superior strategy and robustness of Ramaphosa’s long game have since been tripped up and are no longer to be found in the fan-park of the President. Public relations exercises have replaced the discipline of policy making. The President, and the ANC as a whole, have largely been ‘absent without leave’. For the ANC, 2024 could be a losing game.

The ANC will undoubtedly try to capitalise on the nation’s moment of celebration, but it is more likely to face crowds of protesting and angry people, than cheering supporters. The ANC is a squad that should have long left the field. Some believe that next year’s national election is set to be a brutal political scrum. There has been a recent flurry and scurry of political polls that point to the political fatigue of the ANC and suggest that its winning streak is set to end.

The recent poll conducted by the Social Research Foundation showed that the ANC could plummet to 45 percent in 2024. Other polls are also suggesting a steep decline in support for the governing party, and some predict that the ANC may not win the 2024 national election outright and may be forced to consider a coalition government. ANC support has dipped from 62 percent in 2014 to 57 percent in the last national election of 2019.

Given the aimless and uncertain direction of Ramaphosa and the sluggish performance of the ANC, the party may lose a significant amount of support. But the ANC could still emerge victorious in 2024. The unfit for purpose ANC is unlikely to be punished by voters to the extent that polls are predicting. ANC is unrepentant for its grave governmental mismanagement and mistakes and deserves to lose political office. But the voting decision is often not as linear, nor logical as we want to believe.

Often, voting decisions are coloured by a longing for something that has long died or yet to be born. Hope is always alive, even for the most despondent voter. Even when politicians have long killed and buried it. Sometimes voting decisions are made on the cross of fear. Voters, upset and angry with the ANC, may still vote for the party, out of a fear that they may lose the little that they do have. This is in part, an explanation why ordinary citizens, usually the poorest and most neglected, still cast their vote for a governing party whose performance is paltry and unsatisfactory. Voting for the great unknown is often too great a leap for those drowning in poverty.

The majority of South Africans who once hoped that they would thrive in an ANC democracy are today desperately holding onto the bare minimum that they have. In fear and despair that all will be lost. The ANC’s noble commitment to black liberation and transformation is long lost. Promises of a ‘better life for all” is now a serial of unsuccessful tries. But still desperate voters hold on, some paralysed by fear, others by hope.

It is this uncomfortable coalescence of hope and fear that may well keep the ANC in power in 2024. And rather than the 2024 election being a game changer, it may just deliver much of the same. Unless energetic and ideologically exciting new parties are able to persuade voters that the ANC is an off-side, poor political team to back. The ANC is teeming with incoherence and incompetence. It is a party beset with more vice then victory. Cyril Ramaphosa may well be remembered as the worst captain of democratic South Africa, but changing the captain will not turn the ANC into a bunch of winners.

In his speech to the nation this week, Ramaphosa spoke of how the energy crisis is being effectively tackled, how two million new jobs were created in the past two years and about government reforms to drive future economic growth.

However, Duma Gqubule’s recent thought piece in the Mail & Guardian paints a different picture altogether. Gqubule wrote on how the economy of South Africa has performed poorly since “its miracle transition to democracy”, and that it is set to decline further. By the end of 2025, the country “will have had 18 years of declining average living standards”. Gqubule writes “South Africa is now an unviable country that has record levels of unemployment, poverty and inequality”. He points out how South Africa now has the world’s highest unemployment rate. “During the second quarter of 2023, there were 11.9 million unemployed people. The unemployment rate was 42.4 percent. About half the country lives in poverty and one in five have inadequate access to food”.

President Cyril Ramaphosa hoisted the glorious gold world cup trophy above his head, with titanic delight and joy. It was, for some, a moment to behold. For others, it was meaningless, even bitter. For most South Africans there is no trophy, or celebration. Simply another empty vessel. Even if the ANC does manage to hold onto power in 2024, this will be no victory for the people of South Africa.

Kim Heller is a political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa’.

This article was written exclusively for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions