President Cyril Ramaphosa at the ANC's gathering to express gratitude to all South Africans for participating in the elections and the party’s triumph outside Luthuli House. Picture: Nhlanhla Phillips/African News Agency (ANA)
President Cyril Ramaphosa at the ANC's gathering to express gratitude to all South Africans for participating in the elections and the party’s triumph outside Luthuli House. Picture: Nhlanhla Phillips/African News Agency (ANA)

Ramaphosa has a clear mandate to lead all SA’s citizens

By SISONKE MSIMANG Time of article published May 17, 2019

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More than 25 years ago I voted for Nelson Mandela and the ANC at the South African Consulate in Chicago.

Afterward, I called my family to hear how the day had gone. When I heard the sounds of jubilation in the background - singing and ululating - I couldn’t hold back the tears.

The mood as South Africans took to the polls to elect the ANC and leader Cyril Ramaphosa last week was distinctly less dramatic.

Millions of eligible voters did not even bother to turn up at the polls. And many of those who did cast their votes seemed to focus on choosing the party they believed would do the least damage.

How else does one explain an electoral win of more than 57% by a party that has presided over a more than $70billion loss in economic growth and 2.5 million fewer jobs over the past decade?

The ANC’s core campaign strategy was to confess its sins - of which there are many. As senior leaders criss-crossed the country in campaign mode, they apologised and promised not to make the same mistakes.

Voters seem to have accepted their apologies. The ANC outpaced the next-biggest party, the DA, by almost three votes to one.

The EFF did well to secure nearly 11% of the national vote, though this was still a distant third.

In the lead-up to the election, Ramaphosa was treated favourably by media outlets.

While his predecessor, Jacob Zuma, had a fractious relationship with the media, Ramaphosa has projected a more open, media-friendly attitude. This has meant that although he has taken a battering from his political opponents, he has largely been protected from serious media criticism.

Now that the job is officially his for the next term, the honeymoon must end. On paper, Ramaphosa is the perfect candidate for the clean-up job.

He has projected himself as an outsider, the ideal person to lead because he ostensibly has an arm’s-length distance from corruption. In reality, Ramaphosa is the ultimate insider.

In the late 1990s he served as the secretary-general of the ANC and played a crucial role in negotiating the end of apartheid. As Mandela’s presidency came to an end, he was sidelined and left politics for business, amassing wealth and becoming a notable player in the private sector.

While he avoided scandal, Ramaphosa’s connections to long-time friends in positions of power played a part in his rise. This was emblematic of the formation of an elite class of people who have expanded their wealth considerably since the end of apartheid, while the middle class has hardly grown in a decade.

As such, Ramaphosa’s critics suggest he is especially vulnerable to the seductions of big money. They point to his involvement in the events leading up to the tragic massacre at Marikana as an example. At the time, Ramaphosa served on the board of the mining company Lonmin, which owned the Marikana platinum mine.

Emails he wrote to the company’s managers at the time called the strikers “criminals” and seemed to urge a tough stance from management.

Though he was officially cleared of wrongdoing by the inquiry into the massacre and has since apologised, many believed him to be complicit.

Today, Ramaphosa continues to be widely respected in business circles. He has been credited with inspiring investor confidence and convincing ratings agencies that the country’s political situation is stable.

In Marikana, however, many community members remain angry and Ramaphosa has not visited the area despite calls for him to express his contrition in person.

The gap between these groups - the captains of industry on the one hand and the widows and families of the miners killed in Marikana on the other hand - is large.

South Africans are hoping Ramaphosa can bridge the gap. Yet he may be too deeply enmeshed in one group to be able to transcend the very divides he is supposed to help his compatriots navigate.

But as a president who now has a clear mandate, he will have to learn how to do this. If he can muster the courage to bite the hand that has fed him, South Africa’s new president will have a fighting chance at being a leader for all his citizens.

* Msimang is a writer whose work focuses on race, gender and democracy. She is the author of Always Another Country: A Memoir of Exile and Home, and The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela

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

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