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South Africa at a Crossroads: Elections 2019

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On Wednesday, South Africans went to the polls to elect a new government in what will be, perhaps, the most important election since the historic one of 1994.  As I write there appears to be little doubt that the African National Congress will be returned. The big question that will be answered by Saturday is – by what margin? The ANC in 2009 won 69 percent of registered voters, but only 62 percent in 2014.  The Presidency of Jacob Zuma from 2009-2018 marked a dark period in democratic South Africa. Zuma, who was married six times, faced charges of corruption and rape that rocked his presidency. Despite a series of motions of “No Confidence” within the party and parliament, he was able to hold on with strong support from the left wing, including Julius Malema who now heads the Economic Freedom Fighters party.  When there was a growing call to have him replaced, he fought to have his ex-wife succeed him as president of the ANC and of South Africa. Cyril Ramaphosa, who was his deputy for a short period of time, was however in 2017 elected President of the ANC and in 2018, President of South Africa.

 Under Zuma the country’s economy took a turn for the worse, inequality continued, and disillusionment grew among the population. The ANC, which had fought apartheid and in which many people had pinned their hopes, began to lose ground. The appointment of Cyril Ramaphosa in 2018 was thus a critical one for the ANC and South Africa. Would he be able to heal the rifts in the party, deal with the many corruption scandals, stop the economic slide and restore peoples’ confidence? This is very much what the 2019 election is about, with 48 parties contesting, but the main contenders being the ANC, the Democratic Alliance formerly seen as the “white party” but now with a black president, Mmusi Mainane and the Economic Freedom Fighters.

 But who is this Cyril Ramaphosa that was called on to make this turn around? He was well known as General Secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers in the 1980s, but perhaps more so as a leading anti-apartheid campaigner who played a significant role in talks that eventually ended apartheid and also in the drafting of the post-apartheid constitution. He was widely expected to succeed Mandela who however opted for the older Thabo Mbeki. With the end of apartheid and the call for blacks to get into business, he was encouraged, it was said by Mandela, to make that move. He did in 1997 and became one of the wealthiest blacks in South Africa. An incident in 2012, when 34 workers were killed at the Marikana platinum mine left him bruised. He was a director of the company that owned the mine, but was cleared of any involvement.

 He maintained his involvement with the ANC, served on the National Executive Committee and became Deputy President of South Africa in 2014. He was elected ANC leader in February 2017, defeating Zuma’s ex-wife and became President in February 2018 after Zuma was forced to resign. He has vowed to clean up the corruption both within the ANC and government, a direct challenge to Jacob Zuma who had been at the centre of corruption charges. There are other pressing issues including land redistribution a major one that is being pushed by the Economic Freedom Fighters, crime, the economy, unemployment, and the unfulfilled expectations that came with the end of apartheid. Ramaphosa, who some describe as the ANC’s “prodigal son”, has been able to reconnect with the electorate and bring back to the fold disillusioned ANC supporters, but the extent to which he was able to do this will be seen when the final results are announced.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian

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