‘Despite a high-profile scandal, Cyril Ramaphosa consolidated support from the party that has dominated South Africa since independence. But with misery rising, can the A.N.C. retain its hold?
JOHANNESBURG — President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa resoundingly won a second term as leader of the governing African National Congress on Monday, overcoming attacks from within his highly factionalized party and an embarrassing scandal involving what he said was the theft of more than a half-million U.S. dollars stuffed in a sofa on his farm.
His victory, announced during the A.N.C.’s national conference in Johannesburg, makes him the front-runner for a second term as South Africa’s president after elections scheduled for 2024. The chosen leader of the A.N.C., the party with a majority of seats in Parliament, has become the nation’s president in every election since 1994.
The A.N.C., the party of Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo, was once known worldwide for bringing down the apartheid regime after a decades-long fight. But it has struggled to transform itself from a liberation movement into a governing party, political analysts say, selecting leaders based on what they accomplished during the struggle against apartheid rather than competency in government.
Internal leadership battles have distracted the party from policy debates over how to solve the country’s most pressing problems. There are daily power outages for hours at a time, about one-third of the population is unemployed and gaping inequality is corrosive — with manicured estates butting up against tin-shack settlements without running water.
“You have constant paralysis and logjam,” said William Gumede, a political scholar who has chronicled the A.N.C.’s transition.
In the 2024 election, the A.N.C. faces the real prospect of falling below 50 percent of the national vote for the first time since South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994. If that happens, the party will be forced to team up with other parties to retain power and ensure Mr. Ramaphosa’s second term as president.
“It’s at a crossroads,” said Mmamoloko Kubayi, who has served on the A.N.C.’s executive committee. She said she hoped Mr. Ramaphosa’s re-election “changes the posture of the organization and where it’s going.”
Mr. Ramaphosa’s party remains as divided as ever, analysts and even some of its members have said. Some of the conflicts are ideological — like differences over how aggressively the government should move to seize and redistribute land.
Yet most of the fights have little to do with policy, A.N.C. officials concede. They are more about personality, regional and ethnic alliances, and winning positions in government in order to control how public money is spent.
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“Our experience of recent years is that disunity does not arise from ideological, political or strategic differences amongst us,” Mr. Ramaphosa told delegates during his opening address at the conference on Friday. “But it arises from a contest over positions in the state, and resources that are attached to them.”
Mr. Ramaphosa, 70, faced an aggressive challenge for party leadership from Zweli Mkhize, his former health minister. But Mr. Ramaphosa emerges from the conference in a strong position, having won 2,476 votes to Mr. Mkhize’s 1,897.
In addition, four of Mr. Ramaphosa’s allies were elected to the highest leadership positions, known as the “top seven.” During the last A.N.C. conference five years ago, only one person aligned with Mr. Ramaphosa entering the conference was elected to a top leadership position. And one of those elected then was a loyal lieutenant of Jacob Zuma, Mr. Ramaphosa’s predecessor, and his nemesis.
“The biggest hindrance of his presidency has been the fact that he was governing with people who want to destroy him,” said Sithembile Mbete, who teaches political science and international relations at the University of Pretoria.
Now, with the leadership support he asked for, an economy unshackled from the restrictions of the coronavirus pandemic and five years under his belt, Mr. Ramaphosa will face intense pressure to deliver.
“We expect delivery speedily, and problems facing our people must be solved,” said Lebogang Maile, an A.N.C. official who supported Mr. Mkhize.
During the conference, the results of the A.N.C.’s paralysis were on stark display about a 10-minute drive away in Soweto. With the power out yet again, many residents sat outside, listening to music from their cars.
People seemed resigned that this was what they could expect of life under A.N.C. rule.
Cynthia Maake, 74, said she always voted for the party, even though she believed that its members stole. “Everyone eats money when they’re in that position,” she said.
Ms. Maake’s granddaughter, Boitumelo Maake, 36, bakes her own bread to save money and lost her job during the pandemic. She said she believed that Mr. Ramaphosa was the best the A.N.C. had to offer, despite his own brush with scandal.
“We worry that should they put someone like Jacob Zuma again, then we’ll be worse,” she said, referring to the leader who resigned after being implicated in a raft of corruption. “We worry, what’s next?”
Mr. Ramaphosa has pleaded for patience ever since he became the leader of the A.N.C. in 2017, and the president of South Africa the following year. He and his allies say that the problems gripping the nation are embedded so deeply that they will take time to resolve. They also have pointed to the pandemic and to adversaries within the A.N.C. and the government as impediments to accomplishing his goals.
Mr. Ramaphosa’s supporters hailed his re-election as a stabilizing force for the country that will give him a chance to see his agenda through. The fact that the party’s rank and file supported him suggests that his message may resonate with ordinary South Africans too, analysts said.
He still has several land mines to navigate, however.
Mr. Ramaphosa is facing at least two law enforcement investigations over allegations that he covered up a burglary at his game farm, Phala Phala Wildlife, in 2020. He has denied any wrongdoing, saying that the stolen money, $580,000, was the proceeds of the sale of buffaloes, and that a manager at the farm hid it in a sofa for safekeeping.
Mr. Ramaphosa had risen to power on a platform of rooting out corruption. He was seen as a pragmatic leader, and a darling of the West who operated under the tutelage of Mandela. But the Phala Phala incident tarnished his reputation.
Mr. Ramaphosa survived an impeachment effort in Parliament last week, but the scandal opened space for Mr. Mkhize to mount a serious challenge for the leadership post.
Mr. Mkhize, 66, had his own baggage. He was forced to step down from his job as minister last year after becoming embroiled in a scandal in which his ministry awarded a lucrative communications contract to a company owned by close associates.
To some, the battle between Mr. Ramaphosa and Mr. Mkhize represented the shortcomings of the A.N.C.: Both candidates were men, over 65 and facing corruption accusations. The party’s leadership is too male, too old and too tainted by corruption, critics say.
The A.N.C. did for the first time at this conference elect more than one woman to a top leadership position — three women are now among the top seven.
But perhaps the most important outcome for the party is that, for the moment, it is not consumed by talk of a scandal involving its leader.
“You don’t have to worry about whether there’s going to be a recall or not,” said Ms. Kubayi, who served on the executive committee. “He’s been re-elected, and there isn’t any panic around it. That stability is important.”
His allies expect him to use his power to clean up the party itself.
“There are a lot of criminal elements that we’re beginning to see using the name of the African National Congress,” said Zizi Kodwa, the deputy state security minister and a member of the party’s national executive committee. “For renewal to succeed, we’ve got to be firm on discipline.”