With President Cyril Ramaphosa approaching the 100-day mark as South Africa’s fifth post-apartheid leader, he faces what amounts to a “mission impossible” in the form of multiple, contending priorities to put the country back on a growth path and avoid increasing social tensions and political strife.
Indicative of the almost insurmountable obstacles facing President Ramaphosa are the recent national bus drivers’ strike, which ran for almost a month and disrupted business and commerce, a full-scale “rolling mass action” stay-away by one of the country’s largest union bodies representing 800,000 members, numerous land invasions and consequent police action, some of which was violent, plus dysfunction in both his ruling African National Congress (ANC) party and provincial governance in three of the country’s nine provinces.
Initially, the business sector in particular and many ordinary South Africans were delighted that President Ramaphosa had pushed out former president Jacob Zuma from his destructive two-term tenure in office.
There was excitement at renewed possibilities and hope — a “new dawn” reminiscent of the Mandela era — but almost immediately the “Ramaphoria,” which followed his election to the presidency, met strong headwinds.
Not the least of these is the poor performance of the country’s economy, projected this year to be around 1.3 per cent of GDP growth — roughly a third of what is needed.
President Ramaphosa inherited a state that is essentially broke, with a R50 billion ($4 billion) shortfall in revenue collections for the previous year alone — and another large shortfall predicted for the current fiscal year.
In addition, major state-owned enterprises such as power utility Eskom, rail company Transnet and national airline South African Airways are in debt of billions of dollars and require more billions in bailouts and loans.
Many towns and municipalities are in arrears of millions of dollars to Eskom as residents have continued to not pay for services such as electricity, similar to non-payment protests during the apartheid era.
Poor service delivery
Citizens across the country say that government services are either poor or non-existent — or that they simply can’t afford to pay. Consequently, several local government bodies are also in huge arrears for fresh water provision as well as sanitation services.
But the central government will not allow local authorities to be cut off or to halt service provision because it will cause uproar among ANC’s core constituencies.
In the past several years, South Africa has experienced thousands of “service delivery” protests in urban informal settlements, with many demonstrations turning violent.
With President Ramaphosa taking office, it was widely hoped that his party, which still governs the majority of cities and towns, would clean up its act and deliver on promises made in the run-up to the 1994 democratic elections.
Among the promises made to the electorate were that life would be greatly improved for the previously oppressed, that is “black” majority, provision of electricity and fresh water with improved sanitation and services in shantytowns, formal houses would be built to replace slum settlements, and that a minimum living wage would be established to fight poverty and crime.
However, despite some progress in providing electricity and water to informal settlements, there have also been many reversals in the post-apartheid era, such as local authorities misspending funds and failing to keep water reticulation systems operational, and power outages lasting up to weeks.
Initial confidence wanes
A quarterly poll of CEOs found that business leaders were as optimistic shortly after Ramaphosa became president as they were in 2012, before the full impact of Zuma’s “state capture” system of patronage and corruption kicked in.
The “Ramaphosa rally” did not just perk up the currency, but also led to CEO confidence jumping from a pessimistic 38.4 points in the fourth quarter of 2017 to an optimistic 60 points in the first quarter of 2018.
Sixty days into his presidency, Ramaphosa announced the appointment of four economic envoys to boost investment into South Africa: They included former finance minister Trevor Manuel and former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas.
And in Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal, contention between President Ramaphosa and Zuma camps within the ruling party continue to cause mounting tension leading to at least two senior ANC local government figures assassinated in the past week.
The problem for President Ramaphosa, who repeatedly promised the country and international investors that his top priorities would include ending systemic corruption, is that in fulfilling this promise he will be taking down people and syndicates whose tentacles reach the very heart of government.
To weaken those networks, both the heads of the South Africa Revenue Service and the State Security Agency were recently removed from office.
But those moves have addressed only the tip of the corruption iceberg.
South Africa still has a formal unemployment figure of about 27 per cent, with youth unemployment at 60 per cent, and has been measured as one of the most economically unequal societies in the world.
University and other tertiary students were promised by Zuma that they would get free tertiary education — something which the Ramaphosa government has been forced to accept but has no way of covering and has opted to implement it over several years.
There is a vast formal housing backlog, and President Ramaphosa is also dealing with the fall-out of the ruling party’s promise that the country’s negotiated Constitution would be changed to allow for land expropriation without compensation.
While popular among those agitating for land reform, this move has already curtailed the direct foreign investment which the country needs to get the economy thriving again. People opposed to land expropriation are getting together and a major fight is set for the courts.
And on top of all that, there is an election, now just a year away, in which the ANC is likely to face ramifications if the president does not pull off “a series of miracles.”