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Ramaphosa rides South Africa’s poll-bump train

By Crystal Orderson, in Cape Town
Posted on Wednesday, 10 April 2019 10:14

President Cyril Ramaphosa greets journalists on the new train in Cape Town. Photo: Crystal Orderson

In a typical "Cyril" move, the president used the launch of new trains to shore up support where the ANC needs it most – Western Cape.

With fewer than 30 days before the 8 May elections, the African National Ccongress (ANC)’s Cyril Ramaphosa got a welcome boost: the latest Institute of Race Relations poll shows he remains the most popular leader in South Africa.

According to the IRR’s cheat sheet released on 7 April:

  • 60.4% of national voters felt “very or somewhat favourable” towards Ramaphosa;
  • 32.6% for the Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema;
  • 31.5% for Mmusi Maimane from the Democratic Alliance (DA), making him the least popular national leader.

The ANC is, however, facing an uphill battle with its controversial candidate list, which includes several senior ANC leaders implicated in corruption.

  • In the Western Cape the ANC only received about 34% of support in the IRR poll. This is also the only province that is governed by the DA.

Definitely not electioneering

Perhaps because of this, Ramaphosa chose Western Cape to test out the new state-of-the art trains being produced at a factory in Ekurhuleni in Gauteng.

  • Officially, ANC leaders told The Africa Report that Ramaphosa was in the city to launch the new rolling stock and not for election campaigning.
  • The acting transport portfolio chairperson, Leonard Ramatlakane, told The Africa Report: “We have been promising the Western Cape new trains for a while. The President was here to launch it and it’s not electioneering.”

Ramaphosa was accompanied by several senior cabinet ministers including transport minister Blade Nzimande, deputy finance minister Mondli Gungubele … and Western Cape premier Helen Zille.

During the 30-minute train ride, Ramaphosa said the launch of the new train was a “joyous moment”. He said he was “impressed” on his visit to the factory where the trains are being manufactured and wants it to manufacture trains for the rest of the continent.

  • “It is the only factory in Africa manufacturing trains and we look forward to making trains for Africa,” said Ramaphosa.

Trains remain the backbone of South Africa’s transport system and in the Western Cape are the main mode of transport. But in recent years the trains have become unsafe and unreliable, causing major delays for commuters.

Blue train

Last month, Ramaphosa had first-hand experience of the delay that millions of train travellers suffer on a daily basis when he spent three hours stuck in a Metrorail train in Pretoria.

  • “The train was late and overcrowded,” said the president. “I was with people who were frustrated, angered and dejected and they told me this is their daily experience and I promised them that the trains will run on time and we are going to improve the rail transportation.”
  • Cameron Dugmore, an ANC member of the provincial parliament for Western Cape, told The Africa Report: “After the incident in Pretoria with the trains it’s good that he’s here and launching it. We want ordinary people to have safe and reliable transport.”

But outside, at Cape Town station, commuters we spoke to had mixed response to Ramaphosa’s visit:

  • “This is electioneering, we are late for work every day, they need to get the trains working for us,” one said.
  • Another commuter told The Africa Report she felt that Ramaphosa’s coming to Cape Town to launch the train was good and shows he is committed to dealing with the issue.

Not all guests were welcome. Campaigning group #UniteBehind were refused entry to the event but later blocked Ramaphosa from leaving the city centre for more than an hour.

  • Veteran Activist Zackie Achmat was part of the group. He said President Ramaphosa “knows that the commuter rail system is a disaster that affects millions of people directly and indirectly, because of state capture, mismanagement, corruption, nepotism and monumental incompetence at the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa and the Ministry of Transport.”
  • Members of the civil society coalition said they have been ignored despite several memoranda and letters sent by #UniteBehind. In a statement, they said: “Mr President, please do not let your ANC election machine use the suffering of commuters as an election ploy. We lose our jobs, possessions, lives because of the crisis on our rails.”

Ramaphosa promised that he would engage with their concerns, but a long list of demands and some busy weeks ahead mean a gruelling schedule awaits.

  • Asked by The Africa Report how he is feeling ahead of the 8 May election, Ramaphosa said: “I am feeling good and the campaign is going OK.”
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