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Cyril Ramaphosa: the trials of a political chameleon
Community activist, lawyer, trade unionist, negotiator of the constitution, chairman of the board and now president: Cyril Ramaphosa knows how to draw on his many personas.
He threw them all into his State of the Nation address in February. Ramaphosa’s primary mission is to convince voters that his government cares about them and can fix the economy after what he had described as “nine wasted years” under his predecessor, Jacob Zuma. Whether South Africans believe his promises will determine the outcome of the national election on 8 May. He wants a strong popular mandate to roll out wide-reaching reforms that shake up the government and economy.
Comprehensive and business-like rather than barnstorming, Ramaphosa’s February speech rallied the ANC ranks in parliament and left the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and Democratic Alliance (DA) looking flat-footed. A few days before his set piece in parliament, Ramaphosa addressed the Mining Indaba down the road in Cape Town, trying to win big-ticket investment. Ramaphosa’s balancing act is to get support from radical grassroots activists while courting investment from corporates.
Ramaphosa has to cover most of the points between the radical left and big capital. Although it held onto power with diminishing voter support, the ANC fractured in the Zuma years. Some disenchanted militants formed new factions or parties, others quit politics. The tripartite alliance, which bound the ANC to the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu, co-founded by Ramaphosa in the 1980s) and the South African Communist Party (SACP), is much weakened by defections and feuds.
Neither is the ANC’s election machine in great shape. Tens of thousands of volunteers from the party’s youth league quit in the Zuma era. To win convincingly in May, Ramaphosa must ensure that the ANC gets at least 55% of the vote. First, he has to stitch back together the triple alliance. Both the communists and Cosatu gave Ramaphosa conditional support in 2017, helping him win the ANC leadership against Zuma’s preferred candidate and ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.
Now they want policy concessions such as a commitment not to privatise failing state-owned entities such as Eskom, South African Airways and Denel.
Ramaphosa is keeping a discreet distance from such debates. Somehow, Ramaphosa, a businessman with assets worth an estimated $500m, has to keep the unions and the communists on side ahead of the elections.
For so many, the most pressing issues are jobs and local services
Trickier still for Ramaphosa is winning over ANC members who did not vote for him – almost half the party – and remain loyal to Zuma. A consummate chess player, Zuma is fighting against prosecution and political oblivion.
Zuma has formed what amounts to a party within the ANC, pulling in his die-hard loyalists. Ace Magashule, a former premier of the Free State, was caught on camera plotting with Zuma to oust Ramaphosa. Magashule is ANC secretary general, and this gives him power over the party’s election campaign and influence in its choice of parliamentary candidates.
For now, Zuma’s allies hold tightly to their ministerial posts, directorships of parastatals, as well as access to state contracts. Instead of confronting them politically, Ramaphosa is waiting for the judicial commissions and multiple anti-corruption investigations to weaken the group. With a backlog of as many as a hundred cases of high-level corruption, the authorities could push ahead with a number of prosecutions before the elections. But few are expecting action against Zuma and allies in the short term.
South Africans have two votes in the coming elections: one for the national government and one for provincial government. Facing threats of investigation and prosecution, Zuma’s allies are shoring up their bases to try to win control of provincial governments, as well as the local party branches and youth and women’s leagues.
But they want to undermine the ANC vote at national level by covertly supporting other parties. Some in Zuma’s camp say that they will move to oust Ramaphosa at a special national party conference should the ANC vote fall below 50%.
By embracing calls for the expropriation of private land holdings without compensation, nationalisation of the Reserve Bank and staunch opposition to restructuring state-owned companies, Zuma’s faction is wooing Julius Malema and the EFF. That is a serious challenge on Ramaphosa’s left flank.
That means Ramaphosa has to calibrate policy carefully. Any move towards radical restructuring of state companies would prompt protests from the Zuma faction and the EFF, as well as trade unions. But without changes to creaking government structures and improvements to the poor standards of service, voters may have little faith that a Ramaphosa-led ANC can turn things around.
For so many of the ANC’s supporters in the townships and the countryside, the most pressing issues are jobs and local services. Despite setting out a vision in February of a resurgent country, Ramaphosa is struggling to shift the dial on the economy, against the backdrop of a ballooning budget deficit and mounting private and state debt.
Although Ramaphosa’s campaign to win $100bn of new investment over the next three years has yielded pledges of about a fifth of the target, the economy is marking time. Investors are holding back until they see more policy changes on mining, taxation, state enterprises and labour laws. Unemployment hovers around 30%.
One bright spot for Ramaphosa is the weakness of the biggest opposition party, the centre-right DA. It thrived in the Zuma era, but as it changed from a white liberal party to a predominantly black and pro-business party, the DA under Mmusi Maimane’s leadership has struggled to assert its new identity. And with Ramaphosa — a super-successful businessman — at the helm of the ANC, many black voters are returning to the governing party.