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South Africa’s black elites are unhappy with their president

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When Cyril Ramaphosa ascended to the presidency a few years ago, there was excitement and optimism among South Africa’s emerging black professionals, who saw themselves in him: a measured businessman with intellectual gravitas. Ramaphosa seemed like an antidote to the previous government, which had denounced black professionals as an elite that continued to dominate the economy while whites dominated.

But as voters headed to the polls on Wednesday for South Africa’s most important election since the end of apartheid 30 years ago, black professionals emerged as one of the serious threats to the precarious power of Ramaphosa and his party, the African National Congress (ANC).

Poll predictions The party will receive less than 50% of the national vote for the first time since the country’s first democratic elections in 1994. Black professionals are likely to play a major role in the ANC’s downfall.

Many professionals left the ANC during the scandal-plagued tenure of Mr. Ramaphosa’s predecessor, Jacob Zuma, but returned to the party in the 2019 election. They believe Mr. Ramaphosa can clean up corruption and turn around the sagging economy, according to interviews with political analysts and black professionals.

Political analysts say these voters returned to the ANC in the last election, helping the party maintain its relative majority.

Now, however, some black professionals say they are frustrated with Mr Ramaphosa, arguing he has not acted decisively enough to revive the economy and root out corruption in the ANC. Unemployment rate is alarmingpoverty, crime and a lack of basic services have left many South Africans fed up with their government.

“It feels like he’s not bold enough,” said Polo Leteka, a 48-year-old venture capitalist. While she praised Ramaphosa for turning around some government institutions, she thought he consulted too much before taking action. “I think there’s a balance between being consultative and being authoritarian. I don’t think he’s struck that balance very well as a leader.”

Black professionals are an upper-middle class who tend to have some level of higher education, work in white-collar jobs and can easily afford necessities like food, housing and healthcare. They have grown significantly since the end of apartheid: According to researchers at the University of Cape Town, there are 3.4 million black professionals in South Africa, out of a population of 62 million. They make up just 7% of the black population, but they have a spending power of $22 billion, the researchers said.

According to the latest data from independent research organization Afrobarometer, Ramaphosa’s support rate among the black middle and upper classes was 41% in 2022. But only 30% of the wealthy black people said they would vote for the ANC in the election that year, down from 51% in 2018 (a few months after Ramaphosa became president).

Bonke Madlongolwana, 25, who owns a firewood wholesale company and is studying law, offered a blunt diagnosis of Mr Ramaphosa: “I think he lacks backbone.”

Ramaphosa has rejected suggestions he is a weak leader, pointing to recent improvements at state-owned power and rail companies as evidence his leadership style is paying off.

“Those who want a president who is dictatorial, who is risk-taking, who is reckless, will not find those qualities in me,” he said at a recent town hall meeting with young professionals in Johannesburg, where he wore a dark suit instead of the gold ANC polo shirt he usually wears to campaign rallies. “They will find me to be a president who is willing to consult. I say I am decisive, but I want to bring people together to work together.”

While the majority of the party’s support comes from the poor and working class, black professionals, by virtue of their wealth and power, have enormous influence over the political narrative that shapes voters across the country.

Paradoxically, economically disadvantaged black South Africans support the ANC at higher rates than wealthier black groups, who have benefited most from the party’s leadership. But some politicians and black professionals say the black middle and upper classes are often harder to satisfy.

They are not swayed by the public works jobs, free government housing and cash grants that party leaders promise their poor and working-class voters. Instead, they want to see corrupt officials prosecuted, capable leaders appointed to state-owned enterprises and policies that allow their businesses to compete with white-owned entities.

Black professionals say they, too, feel the pain of widespread poverty: Many pay what South Africans call a “black tax” and send some of their earnings home to support unemployed family members. They also resent shortcomings in the government, which forces them to pay for private security, schools and hospitals.

For many, those burdens undermine the party’s argument that black professionals have been able to escape poverty because of government affirmative action policies or subsidies for higher education.

“You can’t applaud a fish for swimming,” Mr. Madrongolana said, adding that the job of any functioning government is to provide education and economic opportunities to its people.

Ramaphosa’s critics say he sometimes seems more concerned with quelling factional fighting within his party than making tough decisions that could benefit the country, such as firing incompetent government ministers. But Ramaphosa’s supporters say his measured approach has saved South Africa from crisis and turned around corrupt state institutions.

“The only thing you can count on during his presidency is that politics is very stable,” said Sarah Mokwebo, 32, who works at the national treasury department.

The ANC needs to do a better job of explaining to the black middle class the specific reasons why the country continues to face challenges, such as the residual impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the economy, said Mdumiseni Ntuli, the party’s campaign director.

While much of the ANC’s campaigning took place at spirited rallies in poor and working-class neighborhoods, engagement with middle-class voters took a more low-key form: meetings in private homes, banquet lunches and dinners, or forums on university campuses.

In his campaign speeches to black professionals, Mr Ramaphosa typically highlights the corrupt institutions, energy crises and dilapidated ports and railway systems his government inherited as he tries to paint a picture of a South Africa heading in the right direction.

But this year, the ANC will compete with 51 opposition parties, 11 of which have formed a coalition led by the country’s second-largest party, the Democratic Alliance. The ANC is still expected to dominate, but if it receives less than 50% of the vote, it will need to form a coalition with one or more opposition parties to form a government.

Songezo Zibi, a former journalist and corporate correspondent who founded a political party last year called Rising Mzansi to appeal to disaffected black middle- and upper-class voters, said one challenge was trying to motivate black professionals to become politically active.

“They ask, ‘What can you do for me?’ ” he said. “They rely on politicians’ help to realize their dreams.”

For many black professionals, the ANC’s heyday was under Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded Nelson Mandela as president in 1999. Mr Mbeki was keen to enact policies to ensure greater black ownership of companies.

But a backlash from those who felt he had abandoned the poor led to the rise of Zuma, a populist who positioned himself as a champion of ordinary people and derided black businessmen as “clever blacks” who looked down on those with less education and wealth.

Black business leaders were optimistic when Cyril Ramaphosa took over as South Africa’s president in 2018, replacing Jacob Zuma, who resigned amid corruption charges. Ramaphosa became a billionaire after the end of apartheid through African National Congress policies that encouraged black ownership of companies. Many thought he would support black entrepreneurs and that he was too wealthy to be tempted by corruption.

Andile Nomlala, 40, an entrepreneur involved in real estate and agriculture, recalled a gathering in the upscale Johannesburg suburb of Sandton before the 2019 election when Ramaphosa met with about 300 black professionals.

Nomlala recalled that Ramaphosa made a speech from the podium and vowed to develop black businesses and eradicate corruption in the party through good governance.

“When I left the room, I had nothing but hope in my heart,” said Mr Nomlala, who voted for the ANC for the first time since Mbeki became president.

But the past five years have frustrated him, as he believes Ramaphosa has been too slow to resolve the electricity crisis and hold corrupt officials to account.

“We are very disappointed,” Mr Nomlala said. “People are angry at the ANC”

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