Troubled state of the nation a headache for Ramaphosa, ANC

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — President Biden isn’t the only world leader giving a State of the Union address this week, and in many ways, the task facing embattled South African President Cyril Ramaphosa is much tougher than that facing his American counterpart.

Thursday’s annual “State of the Nation Address” comes a little over a year before national elections, but that might not be enough time for Mr. Ramaphosa and the long-dominant African National Congress to turn around their grim electoral prospects in the face of a balky economy, a never-ending power crisis and an uncertain foreign policy.

For a taste of the headwinds Africa’s biggest economy may be facing, consider the 2021 campaign for the city council that governs Johannesburg, which many here are already pointing to as an example of the nightmare that could follow the 2024 general election.

In a critical constituency, the African National Congress saw its support slip to its lowest point since Nelson Mandela brought the party to power three decades ago. Compounding the confusion, no party has emerged as the logical alternative to the ANC.

In Johannesburg, a total of 18 different parties share 270 seats on the council, none with anything close to majority support. The ANC won 91, the opposition Democratic Alliance or DA has 71 and multi-party coalitions — some of the partners hold just three or four seats — have been formed, broken and made again.

Mr. Ramaphosa has led the national ANC government in Pretoria since 2018. His predecessor, Jacob Zuma, is on trial for corruption and stories of shady dealings have tailed the current government as well.

In 2022 a package of more than $500,000 in used notes was found inside a sofa at Mr. Ramaphosa’s farm 120 miles north of Johannesburg. The ANC has used its slender majority in Parliament to block opposition moves to impeach the president.

But “Sofa-gate” as it’s become known, or Mr. Zuma’s alleged theft of funds from the treasury are not the cause of major anti-government demonstrations in cities across this country of 60 million people. Rather it’s the power cuts that occur four times a day for a minimum of two hours each. And, with dams around Johannesburg full after a long season of rain, parts of the city have no water because there’s no electricity to pump it to the reservoirs.

The state-monopoly power firm, Eskom, has been plagued with scandal and allegations of theft, fraud and senior appointments made from within the ranks of the ANC. In almost every case, police have drawn a blank and the government now concedes that the outages are likely to continue for another three years.

“It’s really not acceptable, people are losing their jobs, some places go for some hours without electricity, things get messed up and the business doesn’t function,” Cassius Mmoko, a 40-year-old construction worker, told the Voice of America after yet another protest last month against power cuts in Johannesburg.

Addressing the protest John Steenhuisen, head of the opposition Democratic Alliance, put the blame squarely on the government, warning the power cuts were endangering the future of the country.

“It’s a crisis that is putting our entire economy at risk,” he said. “It’s a crisis that is pushing our people into poverty. It is a crisis that is stealing our businesses. It’s a crisis that is reaching into every single home.”

Recent polls show the dangers facing the government, with the ANC’s national approval rating slipping below 40% in one survey and 80% of South African voters — including two out of three ANC supporters — saying the country is headed in the wrong direction.

Thursday’s State of the Nation address, at the Houses of Parliament in Cape Town, represents perhaps a last chance for Mr. Ramaphosa to lay out an agenda to fix the grid, relieve the highest levels of unemployment since the Great Depression of 1929 and persuade voters to give him a second and final five-year term allowed by the constitution. The alternative would almost certainly be a raft of parties from communists to conservative hardliners in a coalition unlikely to hold for long.

Mr. Ramaphosa acknowledged the challenge ahead at a party rally at the end of January, telling the ANC faithful the 2024 vote would be “probably the most difficult election campaign that we have fought.”

“We need to get into election mode without delay,” he added.

Tall task

The president faces a tall task given the state of the economy.

The price of basic goods has jumped in recent weeks. Since Christmas, a 22-pound bag of white cornmeal — a staple of the national diet — has risen by as much as 20%. And Eskom plans to implement an 18% rate increase despite the power being off for much of the time, a widely despised practice known locally as “loadshedding.” Opposition groups have sought a court order to block the rate hike.

In September, Mr. Ramaphosa met President Biden at the White House but cut short his trip in order to deal with the power cuts. In January, he canceled a planned attendance at the World Economic Forum in Davos for the same reason. The outages have only grown worse.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen was in Pretoria late last month, pushing for greater US investment across Africa and warning against loans from Beijing which she said could “trap” nations in endless cycles of debt. African governments have borrowed a combined $700 billion for infrastructure and other deals to China, which remains South Africa’s largest trade partner.

The U.S. has pledged to fund Pretoria’s planned switch from coal-fired generators to solar at a cost of more than $7 billion. In the past, energy projects have been dogged by claims of corruption.

Mr. Ramaphosa is also expected to raise the issue of climate change in his speech, though it is not a common topic among an electorate concerned more with the search for food and work.

The speech comes as South Africa’s foreign policy has come under greater scrutiny, with both the war in Ukraine and the U.S.-China competition in Asia drawing Pretoria into global tensions.

Days after this week’s address, Russian and Chinese warships are due to arrive at the Indian Ocean port of Durban for joint maneuvers with the South African navy. Coming almost exactly a year after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, local media and opposition groups have largely condemned the drills, while Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor has tried to play down the significance of the move.

“This is just a natural set of exercises that occur between countries,” she told reporters at a joint press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who was in Pretoria just two days ahead of Ms. Yellen.

At the United Nations, while other African nations such as Ghana and Nigeria have supported U.S.-sponsored motions condemning the Ukraine invasion, South Africa has consistently abstained, citing its neutral stance.

Patricia Julieyvna was born in Ukraine and now lives in Cape Town. She said there was growing concern over Pretoria’s stand on the invasion, evidenced by protests at the Russian Embassy and consulate sites not just by the Ukrainian community here that dates from czarist times, but by South Africans of all colors.

“This is a pivotal moment in Ukraine’s history, and South Africa has the opportunity to show the world what kind of player it is on the international stage,” she said, holding out hope that Mr. Ramaphosa would address the war in his speech. “When a small and peaceful country is invaded for no reason, there’s surely an obligation to speak up and be heard.”

Freeman Bhengu is a black South African who has been vocal on Ukraine and he joined the protest outside the Russian Embassy during Mr. Lavrov’s visit.

“No matter how you see the politics of this, a crime against humanity is being committed in eastern Ukraine,” Mr. Bhengu said. “Given our own past, we must call out suffering when we see it.”

He said the ANC government needed to rethink its friendship with Moscow. “I have no problem with Russia or her people, but our government should not side with an aggressor,” he said. “By abstaining from a vote against Russia at the UN, we risk losing our status as a beacon of humanity, peace and dialogue.”

Charm offensive

Ms. Yellen’s trip was part of a concerted effort by the Biden administration to boost contacts and trade with Africa, a response in part to inroads made by both Moscow and Beijing on the continent in recent years.
The Pentagon conducts regular training sessions with the South African army, navy and air force. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was here in August and Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee landed in Cape Town Sunday at the start of a three-nation tour.

But the power crisis may trump all on Thursday.

Either before or during his speech, Mr. Ramaphosa has hinted he may declare a “state of disaster” over Eskom., invoking a clause in the constitution allowing the cabinet to bypass parliament and rule by decree. These emergency powers were last used in COVID-19 lockdowns from 2020, a move that generated its own controversy with investigations still underway over suspected fraud and allegations that billions of dollars were looted in contracts for masks, sprays and protective clothing.

There’s also a cabinet reshuffle on the cards. Some in the senior ranks of the ANC have held office since the first democratic election 29 years ago.

Analysts say the ANC’s corruption scandals have damaged the party without producing a corresponding rise for opposition forces. A low turnout next year is likely to favor the opposition but, as with the council in Johannesburg, no one party looks set for an outright win.

Millions are expected to tune in on Thursday, if only for the pageantry. It is an event high on color and protocol with marching bands, military displays and a South African Air Force fly-by. The president speaks in English, but his introduction is announced in all the country’s 11 official languages.

As with the American version, the president’s speech is likely to include promises of new jobs, greater transparency and an end to corruption.

But given the low expectations and high hurdles he faces, Mr. Ramaphosa’s hope may be that the lights stay on long enough for the nation to hear his words.

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