OPN_190507 Ramaphosa-1557316343248
Image Credit: Ramachandra Babu/Gulf News

South Africa goes to the polls today in its fifth general election since the advent of democracy in 1994. I will hold my nose and vote for the African National Congress (ANC), once the party of Nelson Mandela.

I once passionately supported the ANC. I abandoned it a decade ago because of its arrogance and its muddle-headed policy, 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 ANC’s stranglehold on power. But the situation facing South Africa’s President, Cyril Ramaphosa, has brought me back, at least for now.

Ramaphosa, who heads the ANC, needs a strong mandate to execute his reforms. The kleptocrats within the ANC still control the party. They will not go quietly into obscurity and will be looking for a pretext to fire 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.

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, Ramaphosa led an internal coup against 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.

Zuma was close to a cartel led by an Indian business family, the Guptas. Ramaphosa is a former unionist who was the ANC’s chief negotiator during the talks that led to the end of apartheid in 1994. He was 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 (Dh2.02 billion)

He decided to re-enter politics in 2012, when the party elected him Zuma’s deputy. He sat quietly by Zuma’s side as the Deputy President of South Africa as the evidence against his boss accumulated. 
He is the first South African leader since 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. The party has resolved to expropriate land from white owners without having to offer them compensation.

Ramaphosa has an energetic plan to revive South Africa’s stagnant economy — an absolute necessity as unemployment is at 27 per cent. 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.

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. Ramaphosa has appointed Raymond Zondo, the deputy chief justice, to head the Commission of Inquiry Into State Capture, Corruption and Fraud.

Most of those who vote will, still, cast their ballots for the ANC. Some will do so because, like me, they wish to give 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 ANC majority will drop down a few points from the 62.2 per cent it had garnered in 2014. The beneficiary will be Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters party.

But fewer South Africans will be voting today. In 1994, 86 per cent 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 ANC 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.

— New York Times News Service

Mark Gevisser is a columnist and author. His latest book is Lost and Found in Johannesburg: A Memoir.