President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP
President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP

Last year was characterised by hope, after the decade of maladministration and corruption under former president Jacob Zuma came to an end. But it was also characterised by despair, as populist, nationalist politics took root and the fightback against corruption grew unexpected legs.

Politics will again take centre stage in the year ahead, with the hotly contested sixth provincial and national elections likely to take place in May.

But the economy will also play a key role, given its capacity to undermine even the strongest campaign as SA’s democracy reaches the quarter-century mark.

Before the elections, the ANC will have to complete the arduous process of finalising its candidate lists for the provincial and national legislatures — a process already marred by factionalism.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s narrow victory at the party’s Nasrec conference in December 2017 looms over the process of appointing candidates, with allies of former president Jacob Zuma seeking to push their way to the top of the lists to ensure their positions in legislatures. There is speculation that this is being done in an attempt to subtly direct Ramaphosa’s administration through the legislatures.

The land debate will dominate the political space — and discussions on land are inextricably linked to the economy.

In December the National Assembly adopted a motion to iron out the details to amend section 25 of the constitution to allow for land expropriation without compensation before parliament rises, by March 31.

MPs have indicated that they will be ready to return to the house by this week to begin the process.

The ANC and EFF agree on land expropriation without compensation in principle, but differ on the extent of the amendment to the constitution.

While the EFF wants land to be wholly owned by the state, the ANC has suggested a more subtle amendment to make clear that expropriation without compensation should be permitted.

As opposed to the EFF, the ANC’s Nasrec resolution, on which it based its stance on land, emphasises security of tenure, land redistribution and land restitution. To complicate matters for the ANC, Zuma posted a video on Twitter in early January aligning himself with the EFF’s stance, according to which the state should take control of all land.

The divergence between the EFF and the ANC on this matter — and the factional dynamics in the ANC — could hobble any speedy resolution to the land question.

In addition, the DA is pushing ahead with its court battle to fight parliament’s decision to amend section 25.

Settling the land debate is set to be an explosive process — one that will rage amid the campaign ahead of the toughest elections yet for the ANC.

On the governance front, Ramaphosa is set to continue making appointments of his own to key state institutions.

The appointment of a commissioner at the SA Revenue Service is pending, with a shortlist of candidates expected later in January.

Shamila Batohi takes up the post of national director of public prosecutions in February, following her appointment late last year after a rigorous interview process.

The national minimum wage takes effect in January, amid opposition from sections of labour, including the SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), led by Zwelinzima Vavi.

Saftu and its largest affiliate, the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa), will also have to iron out their differences ahead of the elections, as Numsa’s political party, the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party, is preparing to contest the polls.

The national minimum wage takes effect in January, amid opposition from sections of labour, including the SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), led by Zwelinzima Vavi.

Saftu and its largest affiliate, the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa), will also have to iron out their differences ahead of the elections, as Numsa’s political party, the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party, is preparing to contest the polls.

We will need to take extraordinary measures and work together to take some difficult decisions
Cyril Ramaphosa

There may also be moves to radically reduce the 36 deputy minister posts. The president emphasised in 2018 that his first cabinet reshuffle was simply transitional. His first major shake-up of the cabinet is set to take place after the polls, which the ANC is expected to dominate, though with a reduced majority.

SA Institute for Race Relations polling in December indicated that the governing party was gaining ground and that the DA and the EFF were slipping in support. The ANC’s support increased to 56% in December from 52% in September. The DA’s support dropped from 23% to 18% and the EFF’s from 13% to 11% in the same period.

Voter turnout will again be a key factor for all parties.

The ANC’s assessment of the 2014 national elections found that its loyal voters were boycotting the polls, even in rural areas. This again manifested in the 2016 local government elections, culminating in the party’s loss of three key metros — Joburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay.

Still, opposition parties have been on the back foot since Zuma’s departure in February, with internal divisions and the fallout from the axing of former Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille haunting the DA.

De Lille is set to contest the polls from a new political home after establishing a party, Good. It is too early to tell whether she will do any serious damage to the DA — much depends on her ability to mobilise support inside and outside the DA power base of the Western Cape.

The EFF has also battled to keep its footing amid the VBS Mutual Bank heist saga, in which its two most senior and recognisable leaders, Julius Malema and Floyd Shivambu, have been implicated.

Meanwhile, amid the tumult of a rigorous election campaign, the Zondo commission of inquiry on state capture is set to continue.

What it means

Land, the economy and populist politics will take centre stage as Ramaphosa faces his keenest test yet

Ramaphosa himself is expected to testify at the inquiry in 2019 and will, according to ANC chair Gwede Mantashe, explain why the ANC failed to act during the blatant attempts by Zuma’s friends, the Guptas, to capture key state institutions.

Evidence before the inquiry in 2019 will focus on the capture of key state-owned enterprises such as Eskom, Denel, Transnet and SAA.

It will hear how key appointments were made to influence the awarding of contracts to Gupta-linked companies, particularly at Eskom.

While judge Raymond Zondo has encouraged Zuma to reconsider his decision not to appear before the inquiry, it is unclear whether the former president will do so.

Zuma is in the midst of another battle — in the Pietermaritzburg high court on May 20 he will fight for a permanent stay of prosecution on the 18 charges against him linked to the arms deal.

In his new year’s message to South Africans, Ramaphosa highlighted how SA pulled back from the brink in 2018. At the same time, he acknowledged the challenges ahead.

"We will be called upon to work with even greater focus and determination in the new year to confront our problems and create new opportunities for all South Africans.

"We will need a huge national effort to build on the progress made this year in restoring our country to a path of growth and progress," he said.

For Ramaphosa, the election will be his keenest test yet.

There is no doubt that a mandate from voters to lead the country would strengthen his hand, but the fractured ANC could hobble any chance of real progress, should those wanting to regain control continue to undermine his attempts.