After a lucky escape in 2018, South Africa faces another year of political uncertainty

Cyril Ramaphosa, who replaced Jacob Zuma, has promised an election in 2019. 

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Like a stagecoach in an old Western, South Africa tottered on the edge of a precipice before being dragged back – but only just. The election of Cyril Ramaphosa as leader of the African National Congress just over a year ago was by the narrowest of margins. He defeated his rival, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, former wife of President Zuma, by 2,440 votes to 2,261. There was an almost audible sigh of relief. Dr Dlamini-Zuma was widely regarded as being a proxy for her one-time husband; a shield against the hundreds of charges of corruption against him, which are still to be heard in court.

It is difficult to convey just how close to the edge the country came. An agreement struck between President Zuma and Russia’s Vladimir Putin in 2014 would have seen eight nuclear power plants built at a cost of one trillion Rand, ($76bn). It was a sum that the country could not afford. So desperate was Zuma to force the deal through that he sacrificed one minister after another, as each looked at the cost and refused to give it their approval. What took place is now the subject of a Commission of Inquiry.

President Ramaphosa has called elections for next year. They will be held before the end of May, although the exact date has still to be announced. At present the prospects for the ruling ANC look pretty good. The latest polling suggests they would receive more than half of the votes (56 per cent).

The main opposition party – the Democratic Alliance, which has faced internal strife, would get 18 per cent, while the radical Economic Freedom Fighters would win 11 per cent. The EFF leadership has recently been badly tarnished by the same accusations that it once flung at the ANC – rampant corruption.

Perhaps the most interesting recent finding is how much dissatisfaction there is with the politicians. More than half (53 per cent) of South Africans say they do not feel close to any political party. A majority of these “non-partisans” live in urban areas, are under the age of 35, and have a secondary or tertiary education.

This is hardly surprising: the young face a life of unemployment and poverty. The unemployment rate among young people aged 15–34 officially stands at 38.2 per cent. Unofficial estimates are even higher.

There is a seething anger among the young – some of whom have turned to racism. Andile Mngxitama, leader of Black First Land First publicly threatened to murder five white people for every black person killed. “You kill one of us, we will kill five of you. We will kill their children, we will kill their women, we will kill anything that we find on our way," Mngxitama said

One of the key issues that Ramaphosa faces ahead of the election is what to do about the question of land. Just to recap: in 1913, whites restricted black Africans from holding any more than a tiny fraction of the country. They were pushed back into “reserves” on just 13 per cent of the land. Under apartheid there were further seizures.

The ANC government has – since 1994 – done much to settle urban land claims, and some black farmers have benefited from redistribution. But many schemes have failed and there is now a clamour for more radical measures: expropriation without compensation. Yet achieving this successfully seems close to impossible.

For a start, the South African state lacks the means of achieving it. “Land reform in its totality is a strong, long-term positive for South Africa if it can be executed through a capable, capacitated and clean state — conditions that do not exist and are unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future,” said Intellidex’s head of research, Peter Attard Montalto

There is also fierce resistance to radical land reform from the Zulu King, who has warned of civil war if the vast land-holdings that he controls in KwaZulu-Natal are touched

There is the further question of how to redistribute the land without crippling agricultural output. South Africa’s farms are among the most sophisticated in the world, producing crops on which people rely and which are critical to the country’s exports. Handing them over to small scale, peasant farming would hardly be a step forward.

How Cyril Ramaphosa deals with this critical issue, and what role it plays in the election, could be important to its outcome.

Uncertainty hangs over the election. South Africans, just like voters around the world, are increasingly sceptical about the political class as a whole.

Once they were willing to give Nelson Mandela and his party their undying affection. That has long since evaporated. There is an air of cynicism and dissatisfaction as South Africans head off to do what they do best: take a long rest over the Christmas break and speculate about what lies ahead.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. His most recent book is a biography of Robert Mugabe with Sue Onslow.