Cyril in Soweto

William Saunderson-Meyer on the President's difficult recent campaign stop in the township


Bring forth the sick, the halt and the lame. Best of all, herd out the mentally challenged, for those are the ones most loved by the politicians. 

Yes, it’s election time. President Cyril Ramaphosa has put on his smiley face and is out there, being as resolutely the man of the people as a billionaire can be. 

The in-your-face nature of electoral campaigning is something of a change for Ramaphosa. He last engaged up close and personal with the great unwashed about three years ago, soon after he won the leadership by a short head against Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

Ah, those heady days of the New Dawn. He surely remembers them with nostalgia. Cyril would slip on his jogging shoes and go for a daily trundle along the Sea Point promenade or a street in Soweto. The citizenry of all hues and party convictions would run next to him, cheering and ululating, wanting to shake his hand, touch his shoulder — all overcome with emotion at the narrow escape we’d had from a Zuma dynasty. 

It didn’t last long. Mass hysteria rarely does. Within a short while, as the gap between promises and reality became glaring, a nationwide disillusionment set in. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

With Covid, Ramaphosa was reduced to the safe bubble of frequent televised addresses to the nation. These, like his New Dawn promises, deteriorated from the inspirational to the irritating and frankly embarrassing. It doesn’t engender respect to watch one’s president make half-arsed excuses for why his soldiers beat someone to death for having a drink, or why one minister was destroying the alcohol and tobacco sectors, while another was banning open-toed shoes and crop bottoms (but only if worn with leggings).

At the same pace that the nation became sullen and withdrawn, the president reverted to being patrician and remote. No more joking and jostling with the masses. Only twice, in 18 months, did he even deigned to take questions live from the media, and then he responded with equivocation, at best.

But elections change everything. Especially when it's an election that you tried desperately to have postponed, to bring some semblance of order to a party that is in its worst state ever. 

The ANC is not only financially but morally bankrupt. A majority of its cabinet ministers, and a significant portion of its elected representatives, have been implicated in criminality. Its recent history, including the Ramaphosa years, has been one of incompetence alternating with expedience. 

So, Ramaphosa has had to hit the campaign trail. Despite his uninspiring performance over the past three years, he remains virtually the only saleable face of the ANC, with a personal popularity that exceeds by far that of the party. 

Judging from his reception in Soweto last weekend, this might be changing.

Soweto, with its population of about 1.5m, is critical to the ANC’s hopes of holding onto Johannesburg, which is vulnerable to an opposition challenge for control. But it has for years has been roiled by violent protests over service delivery and it’s an indication of Soweto’s importance that this was where Ramaphosa launched the ANC campaign and that he was accompanied on his visit by Gauteng Premier David Makhura, Johannesburg Mayor Jolidee Matongo and the ANC’s head of elections, Fikile Mbalula.

It didn’t go well. It was reminiscent of the 2019 general election, when Ramaphosa joined the morning railway commute to show that he was just an ordinary oke. But instead of the scheduled 45-minute journey, it took a humiliating four hours to reach their destination. 

Soweto, too, backfired. Everywhere he went, Ramaphosa was met by voluble complaints about the ANC’s performance. Mutinous mutterings, including voetsek, were heard for the first time in his presidency.

TimesLIVE reports that the president and his party “were shown the middle finger by residents who said they feel the party only cares when it’s time for elections”. The report then quotes several angry people railing about rampant crime and, a particular bone of contention, about not having electricity.

Seizing the moment, Ramaphosa slipped into a steaming pit toilet to emerge in full-throated Rambo-phosa mode. Up! Up! And away! He would save Soweto, he promised.

Electricity, he declaimed, would be “priority number one” following his visit. If Eskom didn’t or couldn’t solve the issues, control of supply in the area would summarily be handed to City Power, the notoriously hopeless Johannesburg power utility. 

“We told Eskom to solve the electricity issue urgently. Next week they will send a contractor. I want them to get on it next Tuesday. I told them that I want a report that will be sent to the premier and the mayor.” If he did not receive the report, Ramaphosa said, he would return to brief the community. 

“Do you promise that you will look after the electricity? Please do not lose hope, I will personally supervise that they solve this issue. If you do not vote, all of the issues you have raised will not be addressed because another party will be in charge and they will not address your concerns.”

Ramaphosa later added further gloss to his glib promises. The SABC reports that after meeting to galvanise Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan, [the president] “promised the people of Soweto that their electricity issues will soon be a thing of the past”.

He also committed to the fray another minister, one of his less competent ones: “I spoke to [Gwede Mantashe], the Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy and people from Eskom and I told them to come and fix the problem of electricity.”

There are at least three things about this little electoral vignette which worth remarking upon, aside from whether it is appropriate for the president to direct Eskom’s supply and repair schedules according to his party political needs.

First is the president’s skin-crawlingly patronising tone towards his constituents. If a Democratic Alliance politician spoke in this manner to voters — treating them as if they were naive simpletons — he or she would deservedly be excoriated.

The second is the degree to which the president and the ANC appear to be remote from reality and an understanding of the depth of problems in South Africa. How can Ramaphosa apparently not know about the electricity problems in Soweto? Does he not read the news?

The third is the evasion of the real reasons behind Soweto’s power problems. Electricity outages are, to a degree, because Eskom has failed to maintain infrastructure. But by far the most common reason for an area being cut off is because of cable theft and illegal connections — which routinely trigger substation explosions — and non-payment for services.

Eskom’s Gauteng spokesperson Tumi Mashishi responded to Ramaphosa’ showboating to blame the problem directly on unlawful behaviour. “[Soweto] residents are protesting against disconnections effected for illegal connections, meter bypasses and tampering, and purchasing tokens from ghost vendors.”

Barely a fifth of Soweto residents pay their electricity bills. After a giant Eskom write-off of almost R8bn in October last year, Soweto was left owing about R13bn. Predictably, an additional R7bn of Eskom debt has been incurred, so far, this year.  

In March, municipalities countrywide were R35.3bn in arrears on their Eskom debt. That’s an increase of 40% from the previous financial year. 

Ramaphosa’s promises to Soweto are rash and dangerous politicking. It’s Ramaphosa taking the middle finger that he was shown by Sowetans and simply redirecting it at the rest of the country.

What he is saying, in effect, is that free electricity will be provided to delinquent ANC voters at the cost of everyone else in South Africa. It’s a promise that the president knows that he shouldn’t and cannot keep.

It will be revealing to see on 1 November whether the electorate is as credulous as he adjudges it to be.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye