There are two conflicting messages for the ANC as it begins its most arduous election campaign to date.
Firstly, the latest IPSOS poll shows a very solid early lead for the governing party as it attempts to roll back opposition gains.
Secondly, spiralling fuel inflation (at 16.3% in June) and the knock-on effects into the broader basket of utility costs are beginning to cause more than a ripple of public discontent.
Taking a look at these two contrasting aspects, one might be forgiven for thinking that the politics of the pocket-book has little effect on political performance at the polls. For the ANC to score 60% in the IPSOS poll, it is almost as if most South Africans have shrugged off the parlous state of the economy in favour of a massive leap-of-faith in Cyril Ramaphosa’s 'New Dawn'.
Whilst the IPSOS poll – sans detailed methodology – is a weak indicator of the reality on the ground, the increasing voices of frustration and anger from poorer South Africans is, perhaps, much more indicative of public opinion. And this all points to the possibility of new alliances and allegiances as South Africa stumbles towards a national poll next year.
Ramaphosa's real challenge
It is generally true that middle-class South Africans can withstand cost-of-living increases and a volatile currency. Their sacrifice may involve buying in-house brands in grocery stores or switching to self-catering vacations. Ultimately, whilst they will bemoan rising costs, they remain relatively comfortable. And, the latest more sanguine consumer inflation figures provide the wealthy with some sense of comfort as a broader basket of goods cushions rising prices.
Ramaphosa’s challenge is therefore far more likely to come far more from South Africa’s poor and marginalised.
The South African Human Rights Commission has only this week reported that some 64% of black and 41% of coloured South Africans live in poverty. This is a scathing indictment on policy and implementation failure combined with a decline governance performance over the last decade and more.
To assume that this large group of the electorate are 60% satisfied with the ANC would indeed be unrealistic. And clearly, Cyril Ramaphosa well understands that opinion polls can be upended by deep fissures that are pried open by economic inequality, lack of opportunity and more fundamentally, the cost of food, electricity and transport.
So whilst the middle classes will see resonance with the Ramaphosa-style of Presidency, this class identification is not likely to extend to those barely eking out a living.
Ramaphosa therefore has to urgently find some method of alleviating the plight of the poor. But the poisoned chalice of a R50bn budget deficit, the legacy of the Zuma spending commitments (on education), the under-performance of SARS and lacklustre GDP provide little wiggle-room.
For a quick-fix headline, Ramaphosa recently secured some big-figure investment commitments from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. All well and good, but of little short-term consequence to those increasingly taking to the streets in a myriad of violent protests around the country.
As South Africans increasingly punch their electricity codes for an ever-diminishing supply of units or pay more for each kilometre they travel, they are immediately reminded of the worrying conditions in which they operate.
Whilst Ramaphosa can bask in the on-going popularity of Barack Obama and while the former US President’s words decrying excessive wealth might sit well with the middle classes, the optics of an applauding Ramaphosa – himself one of the wealthiest men in the country – are more problematic for South Africa’s poor. Applauding the critique of excess doesn’t gel too well when you are a wealthy president yourself.
So, when it comes to inequality, Ramaphosa now faces his own very personal challenge. One of South Africa’s richest has to convince the poorest that they can trust him to deliver. And, given the slow pace of policy formulation, state performance and bureaucratic (in)ability, he also has to convince them that six months in office is barely enough time to clean out the Zuma dust and sweep clean.
The toughest test
By the time next May or June comes, Ramaphosa’s (and IPSOS’s) optimistic view will be facing its toughest test. It is unlikely that increasing VAT-free concessions will be practical for both systemic and budgeting purposes.
Similarly, those emissaries sent overseas to drum up foreign direct investment – even if they are successful – will find that a time lag of years will certainly prevent their best efforts being felt by election time.
Furthermore, the weak state of internal ANC party cohesion mitigates against any meaningful policy shifts to build investor sentiment. If this is to be, it will only come post-election and assuming the Ramaphosa faction can claim a convincing election victory. That means Ramaphosa might only have wind in his policy sails (and political strength) towards the second half of next year.
In the interim, South Africa now sits in a state of economic policy limbo. Global issues of trade wars, emerging market pressures, higher US interest rates and shifting technological dynamics all pressure an economy stuck in a performance rut.
With a governing party itself confused around issues of private and public sector dominance, the next year is more likely to be one of further under-performance leading to increasing frustrations.
President Ramaphosa would like to play it both ways. Use his political credibility with the middle-classes whilst appealing to those left behind. To this end, more populist economic rhetoric around land is being used to pacify restless constituents – at least in the short term.
Playing both sides
For South Africa’s opposition, it’s tough. Playing both sides of the class divide may well be accomplished by Ramaphosa and if so, will leave both the DA and EFF reeling (as IPSOS suggests). And that brings us right back to where we are now.
President Ramaphosa in his first six months has succeeded in being something to everyone.
When you promise expropriation without compensation (albeit so vaguely articulated), you play to those seeking dignity and ultimately a much-needed asset.
When you cut a sophisticated and worldly figure on the global stage, receive an endorsement from the Goldman Sachs’ of this world and critique the still Zuma-infested internal ANC swamp that needs to be drained, you find favour amongst the middle classes.
If you are seen a representing the 'good guys' in an internal battle on wills within the ANC itself, you also will receive cross-over support from all groups including some traditional opposition voters.
After six months, therefore – Ramaphosa’s tightrope walk is working. He is straddling both sides of the class divide, who have cut him some proverbial slack in the aftermath of the Zuma disaster.
But this may indeed be his high-water mark. Whether he can continue to placate – with charm, aplomb and struggle credos – the complex cross-cutting manoeuvres needed for the next year remains to be seen.
Once again, South Africa is in no ordinary transition. When faced with the systematic destruction of state value over the last decade, renewal with credible leadership is a very powerful political aphrodisiac. It has left the opposition reeling. But, it offers no guarantee to the governing incumbents that they are safe either.
There are warning signs throughout the length and breadth of South Africa that frustrations are mounting. From Hermanus to Hamanskraal, there is anger in the air.
President Ramaphosa might like his 60% majority from IPSOS this week, but economic hardship is a weak link for millions. Similarly, failure to adequately deal with the ghosts of the past within the ANC can alienate those who perhaps were flirting with an ANC vote over opposition parties. Both these issues can still be used very effectively by the DA and EFF.
Lucky for Ramaphosa that his main nemesis, Mmusi Maimane, is in a spot of bother himself.
There remains a fragility to Ramaphosa despite the polls. And there is a fragility to the domestic economy and ANC cohesiveness that mirrors this. Economic and political management are tightly bound in a symbiotic relationship which can unify in upsetting the ANC’s support base.
Ramaphosa’s election test will certainly be his most ambitious yet.
* Sign up to Fin24's top news in your inbox: SUBSCRIBE TO FIN24 NEWSLETTER