The buffalo and the tortoise: the two faces of South Africa’s uncertain future


If Cyril Ramaphosa knew he was about to face a whole heap of trouble back home, he showed no sign of it the other week as he skipped into a reception at South Africa House, the grand old high commission in Trafalgar Square. It was the eve of his state visit to the UK. The next morning he would be going down the Mall with King Charles. He had a spring in his step. He teased some of his younger, more idealistic questioners. He joshed with the veteran anti-apartheid activists in the audience. They loved it.

It was as if a bright light had gone on in the dimly lit hall. We were being treated to a rerun of the Ramaphosa routine. Many of us in the audience remembered him from his glory days in the 1990s when he outnegotiated Afrikaner Nationalists to bring down the curtain on apartheid. He showed charm, wiliness and — as is sometimes forgotten — steel in the negotiations. Such memories inspired a flush of optimism almost five years ago when he replaced the discredited Jacob Zuma as South Africa’s president. But that was then. Back home it is clear the hope has evaporated.

One recent evening I drove to the outskirts of Pretoria to watch a World Cup match with two old friends. They live in one of the swish suburbs that have sprung up between the capital and Johannesburg for the new middle class. Their lives were transformed by the end of apartheid. They have forged careers unimaginable when they reached adulthood in the 1980s. I had them down as African National Congress lifers. But no. They have had enough of the exposés of corruption and mismanagement. Heading back to Johannesburg navigating darkened intersections with no traffic lights because of the latest power cuts, I could see why.

Shortly after Ramaphosa’s return from Buckingham Palace, a parliamentary report suggested he might face impeachment over the mysterious theft of at least $500,000 from his game farm; supposedly the funds were the proceeds from the sale of “substandard” buffalo and were hidden in the back of a sofa. It is a bizarre story and raises all sorts of questions Ramaphosa has yet adequately to answer. Yet it is a sideshow when set against the crisis facing the ANC. This has been slowly building for much of the nearly three decades I have off and on reported on the country. Now it is accelerating.

After a week when much of the country endured “load-shedding” of up to 10 hours a day, this weekend the ANC holds its five-yearly conference to choose its leaders. But it faces a far bigger question than over its line-up. It is a question that has faced liberation movements-turned-ruling parties across the continent but often after longer than the ANC’s 28 years in office: Has it so lost its way that it faces a credible threat of losing power?

Earlier this week I stopped off for coffee in Johannesburg with Ronnie Kasrils. The 84-year-old is a legendary firebrand in the anti-apartheid movement. A founding member of the ANC’s armed wing, he spent nearly 30 years in exile before serving as a minister in Nelson Mandela’s and his successor Thabo Mbeki’s governments. I first met him, as we recall, on the ANC’s first day of canvassing in Soweto, six months before the April 1994 elections that ended white rule. He remains a committed socialist, if not sentimental communist. He does not mince his words. He despairs of how the ANC has lost sight of its constituency’s needs, blurred the distinction between party and state, and is seen by many officials as a route to riches.

“The ANC has become a toxic pool,” he tells me as we sit on his stoep in a light drizzle. “It’s not just the party officials who are corrupt, it’s in every province. Bribery has taken over the country.” He argues that the president should have been bolder in rooting out the corrupt officials and politicians from the Zuma era. Rather he opted to “keep them in the tent”, he says.

That said, Kasrils shares the views of several lawyers I spoke to who see the report as thin, not least as it rested primarily on the word of a deeply unreliable witness, a crony of Zuma, the very man Ramaphosa unseated. After suggesting he might resign — whether as a ploy, speculates Kasrils, to test the resolve of his allies or out of genuine despair at the situation — Ramaphosa is now up for the fight.

He has referred the report to the Constitutional Court and, strengthened by a vote in his favour in parliament on Tuesday is going to the party conference expecting to secure a second term as party leader. Kasrils has no doubt he is the best man for the job, although he also dares to think the once unthinkable for a longtime proud member of the former liberation movement.

“Losing power may be the jolt the ANC needs,” he says, although he believes that it will prove tougher to defeat than its opponents think. “At least 50 per cent of the poor will stick with the ANC because of the social grants [the welfare payments that the ANC introduced].”

In recent years there have been countless cases of ANC officials abusing government tenders for their own financial benefit. I ask Kasrils how the decline started. He reflects how one of the problems for the ANC was that many returned from exile with no funds and no income. In the late 1990s, he recalls, Mandela, the then president, gave Zuma a million rand to tide him over. “What did that signal to everyone else? Why just for Zuma, others asked? People began to realise they could get away with anything, and all because the ANC wants unity.”

As for the electricity crisis, Kasrils is scathing about the party’s mismanagement of Eskom, the state electricity provider, whose chief executive was forced to resign on Wednesday. Rail and roads are also in trouble, he warns. He also alights on something I found so striking this last week: how inured people have become to coping without power.

“I was sitting here the other evening with a group of lefties. We had the lights on and then suddenly they were off. I didn’t even stop midstream. It is as though we are sleepwalking and no longer even bothering to say “oh bloody hell, again!” 

Traditionally it’s hard to dislodge liberation movements. I head with the FT’s Johannesburg correspondent Joseph Cotterill to Sandton, the city’s financial centre, to see a man who argues that that moment has come.

Herman Mashaba, the former mayor of Johannesburg, leads ActionSA, one of a number of opposition parties hoping to reduce the ANC to below 50 per cent of the vote in 2024 — it dropped to 57 in 2019. Raised by his security guard grandfather, he founded his own haircare business under white rule. The multimillionaire is wearing jeans, training shoes and an ActionSA-branded sports top. He speaks with a bluntness and force that reflects his citing of Lee Kuan Yew and Paul Kagame as leaders to be admired.

He ridicules the long-held theory in the metropolitan chattering classes that the ANC faces an internal battle between the “good” and “bad” ANC. Speaking with the confidence of one who founded a successful business against all the odds, and certainly without a helping hand from the state, he dismisses the Black Economic Empowerment laws that were introduced to give black would-be businesspeople stakes in traditionally white-owned companies, a process that set Ramaphosa on his way to becoming a titan. “We must do away with race-based legislation,” Mashaba says.

Highlighting new initiatives to expand his operations in the provinces, he accepts that he will have to work with other opposition parties, in particular the biggest, the Democratic Alliance, the successor of the old white liberal party. He was a member but broke with it a few years ago. I am struck by the robustness of his critiques that will be harder for the ANC to rebut given his hardscrabble township origins. But as we leave I recall that the lustre of liberation takes a long time to fade.

There may be too little power but there has at least been rain. Last weekend I headed 250 miles inland from Cape Town to old friends living in the Karoo Desert. It has been a long dry season. I arrived much to my hosts’ delight accompanied by a violent electrical storm. We sat up far too late watching the lightning crackle and flash around the surrounding mountains as we discussed for the umpteenth time over the years the prospects for the ANC.

Early the next morning I slipped out into the desert. The ground was still damp. I sniffed that blessed scent left by fresh rain on parched land. I was reminded of a conversation in Johannesburg in the last months of white rule with a writer just returned from exile. In his time away he said he had missed most of all that scent — a love of which he said Mandela had told him he shared.

After 15 minutes I came to a small and depleted reservoir. Three kudu skittered away in a cloud of dust. Then I came across an even more majestic sight: a giant old tortoise making its way to the water.

I have no idea when its journey started. (One of my friends tells the charming if uncheckable story of a local farmer who painted a blue dot on the back of some tortoises and released them miles away in the desert; within a month they had made it back.) It would have been so easy for this old campaigner to retreat within its shell. But it was not to be cowed. On it stomped, glaring at me, head out, plod, plod, plod.

The rap against Ramaphosa has long been that he is too inclined to keep his head down and play the long game. How wonderful it would be for South Africa if he could defy precedent and form and — assuming he is reappointed this weekend — grab his shambolic and corrupted party by the scruff of its neck, eject and prosecute the worst offenders, and provide some steady reforming leadership for another 18 months until the next election.

Ramaphosa is often caricatured by cartoonists as one of his buffaloes. A more hopeful metaphor might be the Karoo tortoise — plodding relentlessly on in a storm-tossed desert. But to really believe in it requires a leap of faith in a country that has run out of patience with promises.

Alec Russell is the FTWeekend editor and a two-times former Johannesburg correspondent

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