South Africa’s President Wins Battle to Lead A.N.C.

JOHANNESBURG — President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa prevailed on Monday in his bid to win a second term as leader of the governing African National Congress, overcoming attacks from within his highly factionalized party and an embarrassing scandal involving what he said was the theft of more than a half-million U.S. dollars from his farm.

Mr. Ramaphosa’s victory, announced during the A.N.C.’s national conference, almost assures him a second term as South Africa’s president after elections scheduled for 2024. The chosen leader of the A.N.C., the party with the most seats in Parliament, has become the nation’s president in every election since 1994.

While the results were a relief for Mr. Ramaphosa, 70, and his allies after a bruising battle, he will have little time to breathe easy.

CreditCredit…Lynsey Chutel

He confronts a mountain of challenges, from a government that can barely keep the lights on or protect its residents against crime to a party that has plummeted in popularity from its days as the heroic liberator that unseated the apartheid regime.

The A.N.C. is as divided as ever, analysts and even some of its members have said. Some of the conflicts are ideological — like differences over how aggressively the government should move to seize and redistribute land. Yet most of the fights have little to do with policy, A.N.C. officials concede. Rather, they are more about personality, regional and ethnic alliances, and winning positions in government in order to control how public money is spent.

“Our experience of recent years is that disunity does not arise from ideological, political or strategic differences amongst us,” Mr. Ramaphosa told delegates during his opening address at the conference on Friday. “But it arises from a contest over positions in the state, and resources that are attached to them.”

It remains to be seen whether the party’s leader can hold together the fragile coalition, heal lingering wounds and help the A.N.C. maintain more than 50 percent of the national vote in 2024.

“It’s at a crossroads of some sort,” said Mmamoloko Kubayi, a member of the party’s executive committee. She added that this year’s leadership battle was about the survival of the A.N.C. “It should be a watershed in terms of, it changes the posture of the organization and where it’s going.”

At 110 years old, the A.N.C. is Africa’s oldest liberation movement. Its decades-long fight to defeat the racial caste system of apartheid thrust it into international prominence and produced global icons of the freedom struggle, including Nelson Mandela, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Charlotte Maxeke.

Supporters of Mr. Ramaphosa at the conference on Friday.Credit…Joao Silva/The New York Times

But those esteemed days are long gone. The party has struggled to transform its ethos from one of liberation into one that is suitable for running a country, said William Gumede, a political scholar and an author who has chronicled the battle for the soul of the A.N.C.

The organization has often selected leaders based on what they accomplished during the struggle against apartheid rather than competency in government, he said. Its members have a tendency, which was born during a time when they fought a violent, racist regime, to defend their leaders from criticism at all cost, he said. That is not conducive to holding government officials accountable when they do wrong, said Mr. Gumede, a professor of public management at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

What to Know About Cyril Ramaphosa and ‘Farmgate’

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Who is Cyril Ramaphosa? Before he was sworn in as South Africa’s president in 2018, Mr. Ramaphosa was a former labor leader who became a wealthy businessman. During his campaign, he pledged to root out the country’s debilitating corruption. Now, he is being accused of a cover-up involving a stash of money stolen from one of his properties.

What is “Farmgate”? According to the accusations, burglars stole a fortune in U.S. dollars stashed in furniture at Mr. Ramaphosa’s farm. The president never reported the theft to the police or disclosed it publicly, but apparently started an off-the-books investigation and paid the suspects to keep quiet. Mr. Ramaphosa has denied that he was trying to cover up the situation.

Did Mr. Ramaphosa face any consequences? After an independent panel’s damning report found that Mr. Ramaphosa may have broken the law, the president said he would not resign and would instead challenge the report. Lawmakers from the ruling African National Congress have put their weight behind Mr. Ramaphosa, rejecting an effort to proceed with an impeachment inquiry and essentially killing efforts to have the president removed from office.

And while the A.N.C. was able to rally together people with diverse political views against a common enemy during apartheid, now those myriad philosophies on governing are fueling internal strife, Mr. Gumede said. At the conference, the resulting leadership battle distracted from debates on national policies like the energy crisis that has caused frequent power outages and land redistribution.

“You have constant paralysis and logjam,” he said.

The results of the A.N.C.’s failures were on stark display in Soweto, only about a 10-minute drive from where it held its conference. With the drone of generators providing a soundtrack because the power was out yet again, residents tried to make the most of a sunny holiday. One home celebrated a wedding and another hosted a graduation party, while many people sat outside, listening to music from their cars.

People seemed resigned that this was their life under A.N.C. rule.

“Everyone eats money when they’re in that position,” said Cynthia Maake, 74, who has always voted for the A.N.C. since South Africa’s first democratic election.

She said she believed that A.N.C. members stole money, and she was willing to accept that fact. But she hoped that they would use the money to increase welfare grants or create jobs for young people like her granddaughter, Boitumelo Maake.

Boitumelo Maake, 36, who bakes her own bread to save money after losing her job during the Covid pandemic, said she believed that Mr. Ramaphosa was the best the A.N.C. had to offer, despite his own brush with scandal.

“We worry that should they put someone like Jacob Zuma again, then we’ll be worse,” she said, referring to Mr. Ramaphosa’s predecessor and archrival, who stepped down after widespread accusations that he and his allies stole state money. “We worry, what’s next?”

A delegate waiting on Friday for the start of the conference, which was delayed by almost six hours, in part because of power outages.Credit…Joao Silva/The New York Times

Underscoring the depth of feuding within the A.N.C., Mr. Zuma, who believes that Mr. Ramaphosa, his former deputy, betrayed him, has been trying to derail Mr. Ramaphosa’s presidency.

On Thursday, Mr. Zuma filed a case in criminal court accusing Mr. Ramaphosa of contributing to an improper leak of information about Mr. Zuma. Mr. Ramaphosa’s supporters, and some political analysts, saw the move as a desperate 11th-hour attempt by Mr. Zuma to give the impression that Mr. Ramaphosa was facing criminal charges, which would force him to withdraw from the race for re-election.

“We are now facing an all-out war that is inspired by deep seated personal hatred seeking to burn everything and anything on its path,” Mr. Ramaphosa’s spokesman, Vincent Magwenya, wrote on Twitter.

As Mr. Ramaphosa began delivering his opening address on Friday, he was shouted down by a spirited group of delegates, mostly from Mr. Zuma’s home province, KwaZulu-Natal.

Mr. Zuma then strolled into the conference hall while Mr. Ramaphosa spoke. Mr. Zuma’s fervent followers erupted, dancing and chanting around the hall. Singing in isiZulu, they said that Mr. Zuma had done nothing wrong and chided Mr. Ramaphosa by calling him Phala Phala, a reference to the name of his game farm that is at the center of a scandal that has threatened his presidency. Mr. Ramaphosa stood silent for a few minutes, an agitated look on his face.

“Comrades, this does not bode well for the African National Congress,” he told the delegates, saying that the nation was watching the chaos.

But chaos prevailed. Finalizing the list of nominees for the party’s leadership dragged into the early hours as delegates interrupted officials by singing campaign choruses celebrating or deriding Mr. Ramaphosa. The rank and file of the party jeered at his allies, signaling that Mr. Ramaphosa may have a difficult time steering a divided party.

Mr. Ramaphosa’s bid to remain atop the A.N.C. was complicated in June when a political rival, Arthur Fraser, the country’s former spy chief, filed a criminal complaint alleging that the president had tried to cover up the theft of at least $4 million from a couch at his game farm. Mr. Ramaphosa denied any wrongdoing related to the burglary, which happened in 2020. He said the amount stolen was $580,000, and that it came from the sale of 20 buffaloes to a Sudanese businessman.

Mr. Ramaphosa’s Phala Phala game farm. Credit…Joao Silva/The New York Times

Mr. Ramaphosa had risen to power in 2017 on a platform to root out corruption. He was seen as a pragmatic leader, a darling of the West who operated under the tutelage of Mandela. But the Phala Phala saga tarnished his good-guy reputation. He survived an impeachment effort in Parliament. But the scandal opened space for Zweli Mkhize, the former health minister in Mr. Ramaphosa’s cabinet, to mount a serious challenge for the presidency.

Mr. Mkhize, 66, brought with him his own baggage. He was forced to step down from his job as minister last year after becoming embroiled in a scandal in which his ministry awarded a lucrative communications contract to a company owned by close associates.

To some, the battle between Mr. Ramaphosa and Mr. Mkhize represented the struggle of the A.N.C.: Both candidates were men, over 65 and facing corruption accusations. The party’s leadership is too male, too old and too enmeshed with corruption, critics say.

“It is a patriarchal society and a patriarchal organization,” said Ms. Kubayi, the executive committee member, adding that the party did not have a proper plan to incorporate new leadership. “If as the A.N.C. we want to remain appealing to the majority of the South African population, part of the issue is infusion of that younger leadership.”

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