Will President Cyril Ramaphosa ever be as popular as the late Nelson Mandela? Only time will tell and the latest poll shows that most South Africans have faith in him, says the writer. Picture: GCIS/DoC

Few people, today, would not lament the wasted years of apartheid.

Yet, in spite of being participants in a disaster that slowly unspooled over 46 years, National Party voters, by and large, kept the faith. The Nats were never in real danger of being voted out of power.

The destruction of that party’s political grip on power came largely not from the dawn of reason in the white electorate, but a confluence of external factors. Even then, were it not for a fortuitous stroke that laid low the bellicose president PW Botha, opening the door for a palace revolt, the decline would have continued inexorably.

And the stemvee, the voting cattle, as the Nats disparagingly referred to their blindly loyal supporters, would probably have continued to vote for the party that had put the country in the dwang.

What reminded me of those frustrating Nationalist years was a recent dinner party at which I was a guest. The people at the table were all highly intelligent, successful professionals.

They were pragmatists, seemingly unmoved by populism or ideology, and from their privileged vantage points within the machinery of government, they were painfully aware of the failures of the public service.

This, theoretically, was the ultimate group of rational political actors. Yet in one of those rare moments of candour that can happen when the conversation sparkles and the wine flows, most of those who had voted in May admitted, somewhat embarrassedly, they had voted for the ANC.

It was déjà vu. Here were the new Nationalists, now dressed in black, green and gold livery rather than the oranje, blanje, blou of the PW era.

One can proffer many reasons for this kind of stubborn, political perversity, this inability to translate rational thoughts into rational actions. The clichés say it all: hope springs eternal; people would rather deal with the devil they know, than the devil they don’t; and we all trust that, somehow, miraculously, the piper will never have to be paid.

It’s also the psychological difficulty involved in abandoning a cherished ideal that you have spent a lifetime fighting for. Whether this is the advancement of the Afrikaner or the enfranchisement of the black majority, the struggle ensnares its disciples.

In this case, unanimously, their continued support for the ANC, despite its poor performance for at least the past decade, was based on an almost messianic belief in Cyril Ramaphosa. He might or might not be able to save the country - the jury was out on whether it was even possible at this late stage - but certainly, there was no one else around who could.

This is the power of Ramaphosa in the present political equation. People have remarkable confidence in him.

So, what’s holding it all back? Are there good reasons for Ramaphosa’s timidity? Not on the statistical evidence.

This week, a poll by Citizens Surveys found that Ramaphosa’s approval rating is 62% (down from 64%), against 28% (down from 29%) for the DA leader Mmusi Maimane, and 25% (down from 31%) for EFF’s Julius Malema.

These are extraordinary levels of support for Ramaphosa given that the economy is slowing, unemployment is growing, a final junk-bond rating looms, and that the president has faced damaging revelations of hundreds of millions spent on swaying delegates in his favour at the 2018 leadership conference.

Yet, critically, for a man heading a divided party, his internal rivals have inconsequential support from ordinary South Africans. Deputy President David Mabuza scored only 21%, while ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule drew a miserable 11% approval rating. Similarly encouraging is the fact that Malema, whose firebrand populism has terrified the ANC into moving left, is now less popular than Zuma was at his lowest level.

Given how all the numbers appear to stack up in his favour, South Africans should now be able to count on Ramaphosa to stop dicking about and, at last, to act. Time is short and all around the country middle-class dinner guests are holding their breaths, hoping that their faith will be vindicated.

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** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.