Unpacking the ‘Ramapho­ria’ ef­fect

If Ramaphosa can main­tain fo­cus on clean gov­ern­ment, it could be the be­gin­ning of a beau­ti­ful re­la­tion­ship, writes

The Mercury - - FRONT PAGE -

AS 2017 drew to a close the ANC, had reached the nadir of its pop­u­lar­ity with vot­ers. The de­cline was driven by pub­lic hos­til­ity to­wards Ja­cob Zuma, then pres­i­dent of both the party and the coun­try.

The good ship ANC wasn’t quite sink­ing, but it was se­ri­ously list­ing. Then Cyril Ramaphosa be­came the party and the state’s new leader – and at­ten­tion turned to whether he could steer the ANC into calmer wa­ters.

The re­sults of our new South African Cit­i­zens Sur­vey field­work – con­ducted in March – sug­gest Ramaphosa has done well so far.

Com­pared to the 23% of all cit­i­zens aged 18 and over who said they ap­proved of Zuma’s per­for­mance in Jan­uary and Fe­bru­ary, al­most two-thirds (68%) ap­proved of Ramaphosa’s per­for­mance.

Ramaphosa’s rise in pop­u­lar­ity has also helped the ANC. The pro­por­tion of peo­ple who held a pos­i­tive im­age of the party rose from 42% (in Novem­ber 2017) to 68%.

Such a sharp re­ver­sal might sim­ply be chalked up to the usual “hon­ey­moon phe­nom­e­non” his­tor­i­cally ob­served by pub­lic opin­ion polls around the world with new pres­i­dents.

Even if he’d done noth­ing at all, Ramaphosa stood to ben­e­fit from any com­par­i­son with his deeply un­pop­u­lar pre­de­ces­sor. But, far from do­ing noth­ing, Ramaphosa has acted swiftly in sev­eral ar­eas since he took the oath of office on Fe­bru­ary 15. These surely ac­count for a large part of the good feel­ings in which he now basks.

Ramapho­ria at work

The pop­u­la­tion’s ela­tion about Ramaphosa, tagged Ramapho­ria, didn’t be­gin only when he as­sumed the man­tle of high office. His pop­u­lar­ity had al­ready be­gun to rise in mid-2017 (see Fig­ure 1) when his cam­paign to lead the ANC swung into high gear.

Dur­ing the April to June 2017 polling pe­riod, Ramaphosa and his main com­peti­tor for party leader, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, en­joyed equal lev­els of (un)pop­u­lar­ity among the elec­torate. Their favoura­bil­ity rat­ings were just 34% and 31%, re­spec­tively.

Ramaphosa’s num­bers in­creased to 47% dur­ing the Oc­to­ber-De­cem­ber field­work, on the eve of the ANC Na­tional Con­fer­ence in De­cem­ber. They kept on climb­ing in the new year, to 60% in the Jan­uary to March 2018 sur­vey. Im­por­tantly, pos­i­tive views of Ramaphosa rose sharply across all age and racial groups and in all nine prov­inces.

There are at least two dif­fer­ent ways to ex­plain this up­ward trend. One ac­count would fo­cus on the widely cited ex­pla­na­tion for Ramaphosa’s as­cen­dance to the ANC pres­i­dency. That was his abil­ity to strike bar­gains with other party power bro­kers who then de­liv­ered their pro­vin­cial del­e­ga­tions on the day of the key vote, mak­ing him ANC pres­i­dent. By ex­ten­sion, this logic would also pre­sume that these power bro­kers were able to shift mass opin­ion among their re­spec­tive con­stituen­cies.

But such a view would fail to ex­plain why the largest in­creases in Ramaphosa’s favoura­bil­ity since mid-2017 oc­curred in the Free State and North West, two of the prov­inces run by mem­bers of the so-called Pre­mier League of pro-Zuma pro­vin­cial lead­ers.

That’s where a sec­ond ac­count comes in. This would fo­cus on Ramaphosa’s very con­scious at­tempt to court pub­lic opin­ion di­rectly and to reac­quaint him­self with av­er­age vot­ers.

Ramaphosa’s “CR17” cam­paign for the party pres­i­dency was or­gan­ised, well-staffed, and built around a widely pub­li­cised speak­ing tour that pro­jected his im­age as a leader.

The change fac­tor

Just as im­por­tant was what Ramaphosa said: par­tic­u­larly, his de­ci­sion to frame his can­di­dacy as a de­par­ture from the “nor­mal pol­i­tics” of the ANC un­der Zuma. He ran as a “change” can­di­date com­mit­ted to clean gov­ern­ment.

He launched this arm of his cam­paign in April 2017 at the late SACP leader Chris Hani’s memo­rial lecture with a sharp at­tack on Zuma and the Gup­tas, Zuma’s friends who are ac­cused of hav­ing cap­tured the South African State.

Given the sour­ness of the pub­lic mood at that time, an at­tack on the sit­ting pres­i­dent was not an es­pe­cially daring act. As of April 2017, 70% of South Africans sur­veyed said Zuma should re­sign from his po­si­tion as state pres­i­dent.

But it surely was an ex­er­cise in courage to make this speech in a fo­rum of the ANCled tri­par­tite gov­ern­ing al­liance – and to say it as a deputy pres­i­dent who could be eas­ily fired by a pres­i­dent who had al­ready sacked se­nior cab­i­net min­is­ters.

Our data sug­gests that vot­ers had been wait­ing for a clear sig­nal that Ramaphosa was not a core part of the Zuma net­work. Voter rat­ings of Ramaphosa only be­gan to move up­ward af­ter that speech.

As Fig­ure 3 shows, un­til that point Ramaphosa had en­joyed only slightly higher rat­ings among vot­ers who wanted Zuma to stay in office, com­pared to those who wanted Zuma to re­sign.

Af­ter his speech at the Hani memo­rial his pop­u­lar­ity rose sharply among the ma­jor­ity of South Africans who wanted Zuma to go.

To­wards a last­ing re­la­tion­ship

The Ramaphosa cam­paign cor­rectly read the mood of the elec­torate in 2017 and strate­gi­cally po­si­tioned it­self ac­cord­ingly. It was this cru­cial de­ci­sion, as much as any ephemeral “hon­ey­moon” ef­fect, that ac­counts for the good feel­ings in which the pres­i­dent now basks.

If he can main­tain the fo­cus on clean gov­ern­ment, and show that he is com­mit­ted to fix­ing the sins of the Zuma years, chances are that the cur­rent lev­els of Ramapho­ria” might be more than just a brief hon­ey­moon, but the “be­gin­ning of a beau­ti­ful re­la­tion­ship”. – The Con­ver­sa­tion

Mat­tes is a pro­fes­sor in the de­part­ment of po­lit­i­cal stud­ies at UCT.


The pub­lic’s lik­ing of Cyril Ramaphosa has ben­e­fited the ANC.

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