- - Tuesday, February 7, 2023

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — President Biden isn’t the only world leader giving a State of the Union address this week, and the task facing embattled South African President Cyril Ramaphosa is much tougher in many ways than the one facing his American counterpart.

Mr. Ramaphosa will deliver the annual State of the Nation Address on Thursday, a little more than a year before the national elections. It might not be enough time for the president and the long-dominant African National Congress to turn around grim electoral prospects in the face of a balky economy, a never-ending power crisis and an uncertain foreign policy.

For a taste of the headwinds facing Africa’s biggest economy, consider the 2021 campaign for the city council that governs Johannesburg. Many South Africans point to it as an example of the potential nightmare after the 2024 general election.

Support for the African National Congress slipped to its lowest point since Nelson Mandela brought the party to power three decades ago, but no party has emerged as a logical alternative to the ANC.

A total of 18 parties share 270 seats on the Johannesburg council, none with anything close to majority support. The ANC holds 91, the opposition Democratic Alliance, or DA, has 71, and multiparty coalitions — some with just three or four seats — have been formed, broken and made again.

Mr. Ramaphosa has led the national ANC government in Pretoria since 2018. His predecessor, Jacob Zuma, is on trial on charges of corruption.

Stories of shady dealings have tailed the current government as well. Last year, a package of more than $500,000 in used notes was found inside a sofa at Mr. Ramaphosa’s farm 120 miles north of Johannesburg. The ANC has used its slender majority in Parliament to block opposition moves to impeach the president.

Sofagate, as it has become known, or suspicion that Mr. Zuma stole funds from the treasury, is not a cause of major anti-government demonstrations in cities across this country of 60 million people. Rather it’s the power cuts four times a day for a minimum of two hours each. Although dams around Johannesburg are full after a long season of rain, parts of the city have no water because of a lack of electricity to pump it into reservoirs.

The state monopoly power firm, Eskom, has been plagued with scandal and accusations of theft, fraud and senior appointments from within the ranks of the ANC. In almost every case, police have drawn a blank. The government now acknowledges that the outages are likely to continue for another three years.

“It’s really not acceptable. People are losing their jobs. Some places go for some hours without electricity, things get messed up and the business doesn’t function,” Cassius Mmoko, a 40-year-old construction worker, told Voice of America after a protest last month in Johannesburg.

John Steenhuisen, head of the opposition Democratic Alliance, put the blame squarely on the government. He warned at the protest that the power cuts were endangering the country’s future.

“It’s a crisis that is putting our entire economy at risk,” he said. “It’s a crisis that is pushing our people into poverty. It is a crisis that is stealing our businesses. It’s a crisis that is reaching into every single home.”

Polls show the dangers facing the government. The ANC’s national approval rating has slipped below 40% in one survey, and 80% of South African voters — including two-thirds of ANC supporters — say the country is headed in the wrong direction.

The State of the Nation address Thursday at the Houses of Parliament in Cape Town represents perhaps a last chance for Mr. Ramaphosa to lay out an agenda to fix the grid, relieve the highest levels of unemployment since the Great Depression of 1929 and persuade voters to give him a second and final five-year term allowed by the constitution. The alternative would almost certainly be a tenuous coalition of parties, including communists and conservative hard-liners.

Mr. Ramaphosa acknowledged the challenge at a party rally at the end of January. He told the ANC faithful that the vote next year would be “probably the most difficult election campaign that we have fought.”

“We need to get into election mode without delay,” he said.

Tall task

The president faces a tall task given the state of the economy.

Prices of basic goods have jumped in recent weeks. A 22-pound bag of white cornmeal, a staple of the national diet, has risen as much as 20% since Christmas. Eskom plans to implement an 18% rate increase despite the power cuts much of the time in a widely despised practice known as “load-shedding.” Opposition groups have sought a court order to block the rate hike.

Mr. Ramaphosa met with President Biden at the White House in September but cut short his trip to deal with the power crisis. In January, he canceled a planned attendance at the World Economic Forum in Davos for the same reason. The outages have only grown worse.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen was in Pretoria late last month to push for greater U.S. investment across Africa and warn against loans from Beijing, which she said could “trap” nations in endless cycles of debt. African governments have borrowed a combined $700 billion for infrastructure and other deals from China, which is South Africa’s largest trade partner.

The U.S. has pledged to fund Pretoria’s planned switch from coal-fired generators to solar at a cost of more than $7 billion. Past energy projects were dogged by claims of corruption.

Mr. Ramaphosa is also expected to raise the issue of climate change in his speech, though it is not a common topic among an electorate concerned more with the search for food and work.

Foreign policy has come under greater scrutiny as the war in Ukraine and U.S.-Chinese competition draw South Africa into global tensions.

Days after Mr. Ramaphosa’s address, Russian and Chinese warships are scheduled to arrive at the Indian Ocean port of Durban for joint maneuvers with the South African navy. Local media and opposition groups have largely condemned the drills, almost exactly a year after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor has tried to play down the significance.

“This is just a natural set of exercises that occur between countries,” she told reporters at a joint press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who was in Pretoria two days ahead of Ms. Yellen.

While other African nations such as Ghana and Nigeria have supported U.S.-sponsored motions at the United Nations to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, South Africa has consistently abstained, citing its neutral stance.

Patricia Julieyvna was born in Ukraine and now lives in Cape Town. She said concern about Pretoria’s stand on the invasion was growing, with protests at the Russian Embassy and consulates by the Ukrainian community, which dates from czarist times, and by South Africans of all colors.

“This is a pivotal moment in Ukraine’s history, and South Africa has the opportunity to show the world what kind of player it is on the international stage,” she said, holding out hope that Mr. Ramaphosa would address the war in his speech. “When a small and peaceful country is invaded for no reason, there’s surely an obligation to speak up and be heard.”

Freeman Bhengu is a Black South African who has been vocal about Ukraine, and he joined the protest outside the Russian Embassy during Mr. Lavrov’s visit.

“No matter how you see the politics of this, a crime against humanity is being committed in eastern Ukraine,” Mr. Bhengu said. “Given our own past, we must call out suffering when we see it.”

He said the ANC government needs to rethink its friendship with Moscow. “I have no problem with Russia or her people, but our government should not side with an aggressor,” he said. “By abstaining from a vote against Russia at the U.N., we risk losing our status as a beacon of humanity, peace and dialogue.”

Charm offensive

Ms. Yellen’s trip was part of a concerted effort by the Biden administration to increase contacts and trade with Africa, partly in response to the inroads Russia and China have made on the continent in recent years.

The Pentagon conducts regular training sessions with the South African army, navy and air force. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited in August, and Molly Phee, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, landed in Cape Town on Sunday at the start of a three-nation tour.

Yet the power crisis may trump all on Thursday.

Mr. Ramaphosa has hinted that he may declare a “state of disaster” over Eskom either before or during his speech to invoke a clause in the constitution allowing the Cabinet to bypass Parliament and rule by decree. These emergency powers were last used for controversial COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020. Investigations are still underway over suspected fraud and accusations that billions of dollars were looted in contracts for masks, sprays and protective clothing.

A Cabinet reshuffle also is on the table. Some in the senior ranks of the ANC have held office since the first democratic election 29 years ago.

Analysts say the ANC’s corruption scandals have damaged the party without producing a corresponding rise for opposition forces. A low turnout next year is likely to favor the opposition, but, as with the council in Johannesburg, no single party looks set for an outright win.

Millions are expected to tune in for Mr. Ramaphosa’s address, if only for the pageantry. The event is high on color and protocol with marching bands, military displays and a South African air force flyby. The president speaks in English, but his introduction is announced in all the country’s 11 official languages.

As with the U.S. version, the president’s speech is likely to include promises of more jobs, greater transparency and an end to corruption.

Yet given low expectations and high hurdles, Mr. Ramaphosa’s hope may be that the electricity stays on long enough for the nation to hear his words. 

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