JOHANNESBURG — South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has spent the run-up to Wednesday’s national elections traveling from city to city, stumping for a first full term as president and for keeping the long-ruling African National Congress in power for a bit longer.
But the most remarkable thing about his campaign stops isn’t what’s there but what’s missing: the traditional presidential entourage, the phalanx of ANC officials and even many signs of which party the president represents.
It’s a sharp break with tradition and a sign of how South Africa and the ANC have evolved since the party of Nelson Mandela cemented its hold on power after defeating the apartheid system a quarter century ago.
Many believe Mr. Ramaphosa’s brand-free, almost solitary appearances reflect an election strategy that banks heavily on the candidate’s likability while trying to sidestep the palpable disgust for the party and for ousted President Jacob Zuma.
“I will vote for Ramaphosa,” said Ndou Paulina, 38, a cleaner in Johannesburg, echoing a common sentiment. “I trust [the ANC] now that Zuma is gone. Ramaphosa is better.”
South Africans will vote in the first election for Mr. Ramaphosa, who took over just over a year ago in a kind of intraparty coup from the scandal-plagued Mr. Zuma. The election will be a major test for the ANC’s staying power.
On the stump, Mr. Ramaphosa projects an air of confidence while subtly acknowledging that his party needs to atone for recent missteps. “I am going into the elections very confidently, very robustly and with a very positive mind, knowing that I am going to emerge victorious,” he told supporters last week at a convention center in Sandton, an affluent area of Johannesburg.
“Sometimes you’ve got to kiss lots and lots of frogs. You’ve got to keep trying and trying and sometimes failing,” he said.
Most polls show that many voters who appeared fed up with the ANC in the 2016 local elections, and who abstained from casting ballots, are planning to come home next week and that the ANC will get more than 55% of the vote.
The president remains tied to the popularity of the ANC because voters don’t elect individual candidates. Instead, they will choose lists from 48 parties vying for representation in the 400-seat National Assembly. The members will then elect the president.
But Mr. Ramaphosa himself has consistently polled higher than 60%, a reflection that voters believe he has delivered on many of his promises during his first year leading the country, said Ebrahim Fakir, an analyst and director of programs at the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute in Johannesburg.
Even so, he said, the ANC needs to do better than its current polling levels in order for the president to consolidate his mandate.
“If the ANC falls below 55%, the knives are coming out for Ramaphosa,” said Mr. Fakir. “He will [face] paranoia, policy volatility. There will be paralysis due to ANC conflicts impacting public institutions.”
The party remains deeply divided after a fight over Mr. Zuma’s successor in late 2017, when Mr. Ramaphosa took over, say analysts. Party officials also find themselves at odds over some of the reforms Mr. Ramaphosa is pushing at the heart of his agenda.
Many want Mr. Ramaphosa to continue to tackle South Africa’s deep-seated economic and social problems. In the past year, he has won praise from many voters and the business community by appointing a new national director of public prosecutions to oversee the uprooting of public corruption, an investigation that was itself plagued by charges of corruption.
He is also creating a unit within that agency to investigate allegations arising from three judicial inquiries into corruption at state agencies that he formed. A similar unit was disbanded more than a decade ago by the ANC while it was investigating Mr. Zuma.
Although the ANC’s legacy has been tarnished, many South Africans say they believe the government is cleaner today than it was a year ago.
“Ramaphosa has managed to alleviate corruption somewhat already,” said Dudu Khanyisa Risiba, 23, who works in data management. “He motivates residents of this country to support small businesses. Things are way better. We need a president who we can trust and rely on. A president that thinks about his people. Now [after Mr. Zuma], we have peace.”
Analysts praised some of Mr. Ramaphosa efforts, especially his nonstop schedule of stumping for foreign investment, including from India, Saudi Arabia and China. By talking up the country’s business potential, he has secured pledges of billions of dollars. He also has replaced leadership at some state-owned companies plagued by debt amid allegations of mismanagement and corruption.
Mr. Ramaphosa says his top priority is the economy, including jump-starting growth in gross domestic product from the low single digits and avoiding a credit rating downgrade, with a focus on boosting economic security for millions of South Africans living below the poverty line.
“We cannot be a nation of free people when so many still live in poverty,” Mr. Ramaphosa said at a ceremony marking the anniversary of the end of apartheid. “We need to focus all our attention and efforts on ensuring that all South Africans can equally experience the economic and social benefits of freedom.”
Some say Mr. Ramaphosa could have done more over the past year, especially by tackling the dysfunction and corruption inside the ANC. Although he has fired some of Mr. Zuma’s more inept ministers, Mr. Ramaphosa has been limited in his housecleaning because of squabbling within the party.
Mr. Ramaphosa hasn’t challenged the ANC’s plan of land seizures without compensation, a program meant to reduce economic and racial inequality that has generated foreign criticism and frightened potential investors. The unemployment rate remains around 27%, even after a recession last year. The administration also has yet to tackle an enormous debt burden and bloated government bureaucracy, and the nation’s investment rating is on shaky ground.
Meanwhile, protests have broken out over the lack of jobs and services in settlements in Johannesburg and Cape Town, and power shortages have become increasingly frequent.
“It’s freaking scary this year. People don’t know who to vote for,” said Dean Daleski, 29, a small business owner who said he was ready to support “anyone other than the ANC.”
“We are all so tired of corruption,” he said. “At the end of day, the ANC have been given so many opportunities to carry out the constitution, but with so much mismanagement in the public domain, we have to give someone else a chance.”
Those include Mr. Ramaphosa’s two main rivals: Mmusi Maimane, head of the center-right Democratic Alliance, polling at 15%, and Julius Malema, leader of the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters, predicted to win about 10% of the vote.
Still, most say Mr. Ramaphosa has done a good enough job in his first year to keep the ANC in power. The key question is by how big a margin, because that determines what comes next.
Ivor Sarakinsky, a professor at the Wits School of Governance in Johannesburg, said that if the ANC fails to get 50% of the vote, then populist forces will surge and the opposition will be emboldened, putting Mr. Ramaphosa’s investment agenda at risk.