Fighting the 'Ramaphosa effect'

James Hamill writes on how the DA can dig itself out of the hole it is currently in

Can the Democratic Alliance counter the ‘Ramaphosa effect’?

As South Africa approaches its fifth general election on 8 May, the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) has a struggle on its hands if it is to make a decisive breakthrough against the ruling African National Congress (ANC). Such a breakthrough would see the DA pushing close to 30% of the vote, a figure the former party leader Helen Zille unsuccessfully targeted in 2014 when the party secured a solid if slightly disappointing 22.3% share.

The DA would also hope to push the ANC national vote downwards into the mid to low 50s from its 62.15% share in 2014. A successful election would also see the DA making real progress across the country’s nine provinces. It is hoping, at the very least, to prevent the ANC from securing a majority in Gauteng province, the country’s economic heartland and most populous province, and aspires to becoming the largest party there.[i] The DA will also be looking to make a major impact in the Northern Cape and to reinforce its already strong grip on the Western Cape, the only province where it is currently the governing party.

Has the DA’s fox been shot?

As things stand, however, these goals look extremely ambitious. Since Ramaphosa became State President in February 2018 the DA has struggled to adapt to a new era where there are fewer easy victories available and the tactics which worked so well in the Jacob Zuma era – largely sitting back and watching the ANC self-destruct – will no longer suffice. Ramaphosa is a quite different political animal to Zuma and the danger for the DA is that it may now find itself hoist with its own petard.

Its long fixation with the calamities of the Zuma presidency - and the desire to see him removed – are now effectively obsolete in a post-Zuma era. With that central pillar of its politics kicked away, the DA urgently needs to find new messages and themes which will help consolidate its existing strength among minority communities while also resonating with the black African majority, particularly those sections of the black electorate where it has traditionally struggled to make inroads, the working class and the rural population.

However, surveys of opinion from the South African Institute of Race Relations (IRR) poll in early March, the Ipsos poll later in March and the ENCA/MarkData poll in April all contained bad news for the party. The DA’s national support stood at 21.8 % in the IRR poll, at just 18% in the IPSOS poll and at 21.3% in the ENCA/MarkData survey.[ii] Each of these is below the 22.3% it achieved in 2014 and well short of the targets identified above.

True, the DA’s strategy has always been attritional, with the defeat of the ANC viewed as a lengthy incremental process rather than an event, but it does rest on the assumption that the party will continue to grow at each national (and local) election. However, if accurate, these figures would mean the party is losing momentum and may actually be regressing - or is at best stagnating - which would be a serious blow to its credibility and that of its leader Mmusi Maimane.

Worse still, the IRR and Ipsos polls show the DA struggling to retain an absolute majority in its Western Cape stronghold and failing to secure the dominant position in the two other provinces it has targeted: Gauteng and Northern Cape. Such disappointing results on polling day itself will lead to a period of deep DA soul-searching and will likely trigger a leadership challenge to Maimane who would then be considered damaged goods.[iii]

Building a DA counter-narrative

Yet the DA is hardly powerless in the face of Ramaphosa’s ‘new dawn’ rhetoric, particularly when it has such a potentially compelling counter-narrative of its own. The ANC’s election campaign is built around the implicit message that, under Ramaphosa, there has already been a change of government thus neutralising the DA’s call for change. In advancing this argument the ANC will point to the ongoing clean-up at state owned enterprises, the preservation of the integrity of the Finance Ministry, the work of the Zondo Commission into state capture under Zuma, and a more technocratic and orderly approach to government.

It can also argue that a resounding electoral mandate will strengthen Ramaphosa’s hand in both party and state moving forward. This all adds up to quite a persuasive argument that Ramaphosa is now the country’s most effective vehicle for change and, as his high personal ratings testify, it has certainly put the DA on the back foot.[iv] However, the party can still make three powerful arguments which are capable of puncturing the many mythologies surrounding the Ramaphosa presidency.

First, they can question the extent to which Ramaphosa does indeed represent a ‘new dawn’ by highlighting the considerable continuity with the personnel and squalid practices of the Zuma era. The DA can argue that Ramaphosa did not emerge from a political wilderness but has been a central figure in ANC politics for over three decades. Specifically they might remind voters that he served as Zuma’s deputy president, of both party and state, between 2012 and 2017 and was therefore part of an ANC leadership team which helped enable the egregious misrule and plundering of the Zuma era.

The ANC senior leadership repeatedly failed to take any meaningful steps to remove Zuma from power in the party’s National Executive Committee or to support the attempts made by other parties in the National Assembly to do so. Quite the opposite in fact. The party rallied round Zuma throughout the multiple scandals of this era preferring to denigrate those exposing endemic corruption. Ramaphosa, in the service of his own narrow political interests, was largely silent throughout a period when Zuma acted in defiance of the Constitution and hastened a descent into outright kleptocracy through the capture of the state by private business networks close to him and his family.

The DA can argue that it is impossible to believe Ramaphosa was unaware of this pervasive malfeasance and that, like T S Eliot’s cat, Macavity, he was always somehow magically ‘not there’ throughout the misdemeanours and dysfunction of this period. In short, he can be presented as someone who climbed aboard the anti-Zuma bandwagon very belatedly and, again, largely for his own political convenience. If Ramaphosa is correct in stating that South Africa experienced ‘nine lost years’ under Zuma[v], then, as part of the senior leadership, he was deeply complicit in that near decade of destruction and failure.

Moreover, the DA might question just how much of a break there has actually been with the Zuma era and the extent to which the ANC has actually been purified. The notorious ANC party list for the election includes many individuals implicated in state capture and various forms of corruption and wrongdoing.[vi] Ramaphosa’s own ANC leadership team includes several figures compromised by allegations of corruption, including his deputy David Mabuza who swung the vote in favour of Ramaphosa at the ANC’s elective conference in December 2017 [vii], Ace Magashule, the ANC Secretary-General, now the subject of Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s withering critique in the book Gangster State documenting extensive corruption during his time as the Premier of Free State[viii], and Deputy Secretary-General, Jessie Duarte.

These were all Zuma allies and it is impossible to characterize any of them as remotely credible symbols of a new dawn. Of course, Ramaphosa’s supporters might argue that he has had no option but to accommodate such people given the narrowness of his own victory over the Zuma faction at the ANC’s elective conference at Nasrec in December 2017 which has produced a delicate balance of power inside the ANC.

They might also remind critics that these individuals were elected by grassroots ANC members and those votes cannot simply be overturned by the national leadership. Such arguments carry real weight but, equally, it cannot be argued at one and the same time that the venal political culture of the Zuma era has been jettisoned. The continuing political clout of such individuals says otherwise. [ix]

Ramaphosa’s contested leadership

This should allow the DA to make a second argument, namely, that Ramaphosa’s authority is deeply contested within the ANC and while it might be possible to admire him personally and even to laud some of his ambitions, he is leading the wrong party if he is serious about realising them. In short, the ANC constitutes a serious organisational drag on anything he wants to achieve due to both the outright opposition to him within its ranks (including in the senior leadership team itself) and its eclectic character.

The former means that Ramaphosa’s room for political manoeuvre is severely constrained[x] and may even mean that his position is far from secure post-election.[xi] The latter requires the endless factional balancing and striving for ‘unity’ which serves as a fatal impediment to any leader seeking to embark on a clear policy direction and privileges lowest common denominator consensus politics. He is also being compelled to embrace policies such as land expropriation without compensation about which he is clearly lukewarm to placate opinion inside the ANC and to ensure he is not outflanked by Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

Indeed it is difficult to see how he can deliver on the central plank of his platform – attracting $100 billion in foreign direct investment over five years – when securing that is likely to entail more liberal economic arrangements pleasing to his business supporters but anathema to his allies and backers in the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party. That is a divide which he cannot straddle indefinitely as the contradictions and tensions within his support base are stretched to breaking point.

Ramaphosa’s record to date

Finally, the DA can argue that, while the political atmospherics may have improved, Ramaphosa has made very little tangible progress during his year in office, particularly on the economy. The rate of growth for 2018, at 0.8%, was actually below that in Zuma’s final year, at 1.3% and unemployment remains catastrophically high. The power utility Eskom remains utterly dysfunctional and the debacle of power outages and load shedding provides a sobering backdrop to a Ramaphosa campaign resting on the view that we are witnessing a shift to a more efficient and technocratic administration.

In short, while Ramaphosa undoubtedly talks a good game his actual achievements are quite thin on the ground. The DA will look to contrast this with its own record of achievement and good governance in the Western Cape and in the municipalities it controls, and it can characterize the areas it administers as islands of good governance set in a wider sea of ANC corruption and incompetence. [xii]

The DA has clearly been unnerved by the rise of Ramaphosa who has stolen some of the party’s best tunes and is even encroaching upon its traditional turf by appealing to minorities, a bedrock DA constituency, to back him. It will take considerable skill and finesse for Maimane to mount a successful election campaign in these circumstances, particularly when the DA has spent far too much time over the last two years absorbed in internecine feuding over personalities.

Much will depend upon overall national turnout and differential turnout, the ability (or otherwise) of each party to mobilize its core support but the DA must at some point make serious inroads into the black African vote without which it has no prospect of ever dislodging the ANC. Ultimately the DA must hammer home its core message, namely, that it is ANC misrule over decades which has brought the country to its present sorry condition and the buck must stop with it and all of its leaders, not merely the departed Zuma.

But the feeling persists that while the high tide of ‘Ramaphoria’ may have passed it has yet to fully dissipate and his popularity comfortably outstrips that of his own party. For the DA then, May 2019 is likely to have come too soon for a strong repudiation of the Ramaphosa presidency and the ANC will be returned to power on his coat-tails although the precise margin of victory will be crucial in determining his subsequent authority in party and state. Equally, the precise nature of the DA’s defeat will decide the fate of its leader and will provide solid evidence as to whether or not the party’s supposedly inexorable forward march has been halted.

James Hamill is an Associate Fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.


[i] Genevieve Quintal, ‘DA eyes Gauteng as ANC “at its weakest”’, Business Day, 11 April 2019

[ii] Genevieve Quintal ‘IRR poll forecasts rocky road to election’, Business Day, 6 March 2019; Ferial Haffajee, ‘ANC – 61%, DA 18%, EFF 10% - IPSOS poll’, Daily Maverick, 19 March 2019; Daniel Silke, ‘Polls point to political drama’, Politicsweb, 24 April 2019

[iii] Gareth Van Onselen, ‘Three DA scenarios after the election’, Business Day, 30 January 2019

[iv] Genevieve Quintal, ‘Ramaphosa more popular than Maimane, Malema, poll shows’, Business Day, 8 April 2019

[v] Ferial Haffajee, ‘Ramaphosa’s “nine lost years” speech impresses Old Mutual CEO at Davos’, fin24, 24 January 2019

[vi] Genevieve Quintal & Claudi Mailovich, ‘Tainted cadres on ANC list a blow to Cyril Ramaphosa’s new dawn’, Business Day, 14 March 2019

[vii] Norimitsu Onishi and Selam Gebrekidan, ‘South Africa vows to end corruption. Are its new leaders part of the problem?’ The New York Times, 4 August 2018

[viii] Rebecca Davis, ‘New book lays bare Ace Magashule’s Free State fiefdom’ Daily Maverick, 31 March 2019;

[ix] Financial Mail, ‘Editorial: Is the Ace in Cyril’s pack really a joker?’, 4 April 2019

[x] Ranjeni Munasamy, ‘Why Cyril Ramaphosa may not be the saviour SA is waiting for’, Business Day, 20 March 2019 and Judith February,’The ANC today: Messy, complex and drawn out – an ending that cannot be predicted’, Daily Maverick, 4 April 2019

[xi] Rebecca Davis, ‘How seriously should we take the idea that the ANC might axe Ramaphosa shortly after the elections?’, Daily Maverick, 12 April 2009

[xii] Rebecca Davis, ‘Independent report shows most well-run municipalities are DA’, Daily Maverick, 16 April 2019