Analysis: South Africa’s Ramaphosa on a knife edge as crises boost leadership race

  • Power cuts, crime, unexplained cash tarnish the presidency
  • Several ANC figures prepare to challenge Ramaphosa
  • The ruling party could face an unprecedented loss of majority
  • Ramaphosa could still be considered the most credible candidate

JOHANNESBURG, Aug 5 (Reuters) – South African Cyril Ramaphosa is plagued by crises that have cast doubt on his presidency and left him vulnerable to a leadership challenge as his party begins the process of selecting candidates for the next national elections.

As the clouds gather, analysts and party insiders say his best chance of survival is for many members of the ruling African National Congress to see him as the least objectionable candidate – both for the investors and voters – in the 2024 polls, which could see the party lose its parliamentary mandate. majority for the first time since the end of white minority rule nearly three decades ago.

ANC members will choose their party leader, and therefore the presidential candidate, in December. But the battle lines are now being drawn, with power blocs rallying around candidates at rallies to elect provincial party leaders and at a national policy conference last weekend.

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Among the challengers are former health minister Zweli Mkhize, tourism minister Lindiwe Sisulu and Duduzane Zuma, son of former president Jacob Zuma.

“He is badly shaken, but (Ramaphosa) still retains more confidence than other alternative political leaders,” said Susan Booysen, research director at the Mapungubwe Strategic Thinking Institute. “Alternatives should show they have credibility.”

The ANC has never been so unpopular.

Struggling power company Eskom imposed its worst power cuts in more than two years. Poor service delivery saw support for the ANC in November’s municipal elections fall below 50% for the first time. Read more

A spate of looting a year ago and mass shootings in July exposed police failures and gaping wealth inequalities. Read more

And a $4 million heist at Ramaphosa’s private farm in June has raised questions about his vast wealth – embarrassing for a leader who won his ticket on a promise to clean up rampant corruption.

Four ANC insiders said Ramaphosa’s rivals are to varying degrees allied with his predecessor Jacob Zuma’s faction, whose victory would be viewed as a setback by investors in Africa’s most industrialized economy. Forensic corruption probe found systemic corruption during Zuma’s 2009-2018 tenure; he denies wrongdoing. Read more

Zuma’s faction recently captured party leadership in ANC strongholds of Mpumalanga and Kwazulu-Natal, reducing Ramaphosa’s provincial power base.

Some ANC members are also supportive of Vice President David Mabuza, who has not said he will run but will automatically take over if Ramaphosa is expelled early.


Ramaphosa acted decisively against COVID-19 in 2020 – imposing some of the world’s toughest restrictions and expanding social protection to prevent hunger – but dithered on other contentious policy issues. It took more than two years for his government to start implementing plans to buy more power from private generators and reduce reliance on Eskom, a process fraught with pitfalls.

“He’s caught between paranoia and paralysis. There’s this indecisiveness, going from one thing to the next,” said Ebrahim Fakir of the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute in South Africa.

Police are investigating the origin of millions of dollars in foreign banknotes stolen from Ramaphosa’s private farm for tax or exchange control irregularities. He says the funds come from game sales and welcomed the investigation.

“Ramaphosa is in a very weak position because of this foreign currency found in his house,” said Moeletsi Mbeki, vice president of the South African Institute of International Affairs and brother of ex-president Thabo Mbeki. “He needs to explain why (it was)… not at the bank.”

At the policy conference, Ramaphosa clashed with Zuma allies arguing that the party should suspend a rule that any official charged with crimes must resign while they are under investigation. Read more

The ‘step aside’ rule prevents suspended ANC general secretary Ace Magashule from challenging Ramaphosa after being accused of corruption. But that could come to haunt the president if he himself is indicted.


Any of its likely challengers would make investors fearful of “taking South Africa back to a tougher place”, said Razia Khan, Standard Chartered’s head of research for Africa and the Middle East.

Mkhize was suspended a year ago over allegations that his department improperly awarded contracts related to COVID-19 to former associates. read more He did not respond to a request for comment, but denies any wrongdoing.

Mabuza has struggled to ignore allegations – which he denies – of improper bidding for a 2010 World Cup stadium and links to political assassinations. His spokeswoman did not comment.

Sisulu supported Zuma throughout the corruption investigation. He “is a valued and respected leader of the ANC”, said spokesman Steve Motale.

Duduzane Zuma – known for his designer suits, speedboat rides in Dubai and crashing a Porsche into a taxi minibus in 2014 – is being investigated alongside his father for alleged corruption.

“I showed up each time and pleaded not guilty,” he told Reuters. “I’m young at heart. If I want to jump on a jet ski, quad or private plane, that shouldn’t be a problem. I’ve worked hard.”

If the ANC loses its parliamentary majority, it could force the party to form an uneasy coalition. Several conference delegates told Reuters they still considered Ramaphosa their best bet.

“I don’t see anyone else who can compete with him,” Interior Minister Aaron Motsoaledi told Reuters.

Some analysts agree.

“To kidnap Ramaphosa would be a suicide mission. He was the one who slowed their decline,” said author and political analyst Ralph Mathekga. “He is the most eligible and… can help the party survive.”

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Additional reporting by Siyabonga Sishi in Johannesburg; edited by Alexandra Zavis and Toby Chopra

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