Early on Sept. 8, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa set out for his morning walk. A brisk constitutional has long been a ritual for the former freedom fighter and businessman who became president just more than six months ago, but now the 65-year-old’s daily exercise has been pressed into service as another tool in an increasingly high-stakes attempt to turn his country around.
Ramaphosa was in KwaZulu-Natal province to boost a campaign that encourages citizens to get involved in civic activism.
In Durban, he invited residents to join him on his stroll at 6am and to volunteer to work for their communities and the country, citing lines from a song by the late trumpeter and activist Hugh Masekela: “I want to lend a hand. Send me.”
Racked by political violence, crime, corruption, unemployment and racial tensions, KwaZulu-Natal is as good a place as any for Ramaphosa to drum up support as he faces what might be the most challenging weeks of his presidency.
The appeal to public sentiment is a demonstration of strength — Ramaphosa remains broadly popular — and weakness.
If the departure of Ramaphosa’s predecessor Jacob Zuma — accused of presiding over an immense system of corruption and patronage that drained billions from the exchequer — led commentators to speak of “Ramaphoria,” they now talk of “Ramageddon.”
There is more at stake than the success of a single reforming leader, analysts say.
The dream of former South African president Nelson Mandela that the country would grow into a nation reconciled with its past, free of racial tension and with growing wealth equitably shared, is “absolutely in crisis,” said William Gumede, the executive chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation, a South African think tank.
The most immediate bad news has been economic. Earlier this month official statistics surprised most observers by revealing that the country was in recession.
The currency crashed to below its level before Ramaphosa took power and the prospect of a potentially catastrophic downgrade by ratings agencies — that would make state borrowing more expensive — now looms.
Forecasts put real economic growth at less than 1 percent this year. Unemployment — already very high — is rising and inflation is hitting poor people’s budgets hard.
“The economy is supposed to be his strong point, but there is just no confidence. The story of the new dawn is just no longer credible,” said Ralph Mathekga, a political analyst and author.
Then there is the thorny, complex and polarizing issue of land reform.
The main focus has been on farmland — of which 72 percent is owned by whites, who constitute less than 10 percent of the population.
Late last year, the African National Congress (ANC), in power since the end of the apartheid regime with the first free elections in 1994, committed to more effective measures to redistribute land.
However, a decision to press ahead with a constitutional amendment to expropriate without compensation — with a parliamentary vote due next month — has rattled investors, as well as prompting US President Donald Trump to tweet an unfounded right-wing claim that white farms were being seized by the government and there was “large-scale killing” of farmers.
Ramaphosa has a deadline too. The ANC faces a tricky election next year, which could see its share of the vote dip below 50 percent for the first time.
A left-wing faction within the party, and the populist opposition Economic Freedom Fighters, have pushed for radical measures on land.
The president, a pro-business moderate, is profoundly skeptical, but has been forced to make concessions, one adviser said.
Corruption is another problem. A judicial inquiry ordered by a public anti-graft ombudsman after allegations of improper relations between members of Zuma’s team and a family of rich businessmen has dominated news.
The hearings have complemented Ramaphosa’s own efforts to weaken vast and entrenched patronage networks.
Efforts are being made to rehabilitate the tax collection agency, elite police investigation teams, security services and the prosecution service, as well as clean out the inefficient and hugely indebted state utilities repeatedly named in corruption allegations.
Ramaphosa must tread carefully. Enemies in the ANC already hope to use projected losses in next year’s election to justify a special party conference that could demand a vote of no confidence.
“Cyril has made good inroads, but if he goes any further he will be threatening powerful people who he needs to keep on board for the moment,” Mathekga said.
The roots of the challenges facing Ramaphosa reach well beyond the damage done by Zuma’s nine-year rule and right back to the legacy of 400 years of colonialism and racism.
Not only does the president have to fight resistance within the ANC — a Zuma legacy — but also the consequences of poor governance over two decades, and of a deeply traumatic history.
“The irony is this guy finally gets the presidency and it’s a poisoned chalice,” Gumede said. “Mandela’s dream is not dead because there are people, black and white, who will fight for it, and there always will be, but now we have to rebuild it.”
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