South Africa’s Black Elites Sour on the President They Championed

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Cyril Ramaphosa ascended to the presidency of South Africa several years ago carrying the excitement and optimism of the country’s rising Black professionals, who saw themselves in him: a measured businessman with intellectual gravitas. He seemed an antidote to the previous administration, which had blasted Black professionals as elitists complicit in the continued white domination of the economy.

But as voters head to the polls on Wednesday for the most consequential election in South Africa since the end of apartheid 30 years ago, Black professionals represent one of the grave threats to the precarious grip on power held by Mr. Ramaphosa and his party, the African National Congress, or A.N.C.

Polls predict that the party will receive below 50 percent of the national vote for the first time since the country’s first democratic election in 1994. And Black professionals could play a significant role in the A.N.C.’s demise.

After defecting from the A.N.C. during the scandal-plagued tenure of Mr. Ramaphosa’s predecessor, Jacob Zuma, many professionals returned to the party in the 2019 election. They believed that Mr. Ramaphosa could clean up corruption and turn around the sluggish economy, according to interviews with political analysts and Black professionals.

The return of these voters to the A.N.C. in the last election helped the party retain a comfortable majority, political analysts say.

Now, though, some Black professionals say they have grown disillusioned with Mr. Ramaphosa, believing that he has not acted decisively enough to reinvigorate the economy and eliminate A.N.C. corruption. Staggering unemployment, poverty, crime and a lack of basic services have left many South Africans fed up with the government.

“It just feels like he has not been bold enough,” said Polo Leteka, a 48-year-old venture capitalist. While she credits Mr. Ramaphosa with turning around some state institutions, she believes that he consults too much before taking action. “I think there’s a balance between consultation and being authoritarian. And I don’t think he’s struck that balance properly as a leader.”

Black professionals are those in the middle- and upper-classes who tend to have some level of higher education, work white collar jobs and are readily able to afford necessities like food, housing and medical care. The cohort has grown significantly since the end of apartheid: It accounts for 3.4 million of South Africa’s 62 million people, according to researchers at the University of Cape Town. Black professionals are just 7 percent of the Black population, but they have a spending power of $22 billion, the researchers said.

Mr. Ramaphosa had an approval rating of 41 percent among the Black middle- and upper-classes in 2022, according to the latest data from Afrobarometer, an independent research organization. But only 30 percent of people in the Black affluent classes said that year that they would vote for the A.N.C. in an election, down from 51 percent in 2018, just months after Mr. Ramaphosa became president.

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

Mr. Ramaphosa has rejected the assertion that he is a weak leader, pointing to recent improvements in the state-owned power and rail companies as evidence that his style of leadership was bearing fruit.

“Those who would like a president who is dictatorial, who is adventurous, who is reckless, will not find that in me,” he said during a recent town hall meeting with young professionals in Johannesburg, where he wore a dark suit instead of the gold A.N.C. polo shirt that he typically wears during campaign rallies. “In me they will find a president who wants to consult. I say I am decisive, but I want to take people along.”

While the party gets most of its support from the poor and working-class, Black professionals, with their wealth and access to power, have an outsized influence on the political narrative that sways voters nationwide.

It might seem paradoxical that economically struggling Black South Africans support the A.N.C. at higher rates than the affluent Black population, which has benefited the most under the party’s leadership. But the Black middle and upper classes tend to be more difficult to satisfy, several politicians and Black professionals said.

They aren’t moved by the public works jobs, free government houses and cash grants that party leaders promise their poor and working-class constituents. Instead, they are interested in seeing corrupt officials prosecuted, competent leaders appointed to state-owned companies and policies that allow their businesses to compete against white-owned entities.

Black professionals say that they also feel the pain of widespread poverty: Many pay what South Africans call the “Black tax,” sending a portion of their earnings home to support jobless family members. Black professionals also resent that government shortcomings force them to pay for private security, schools and hospitals.

For many, those burdens dampen the party’s argument that Black professionals have been able to rise out of poverty because of the government’s affirmative action policies or higher education grants.

“You cannot clap at a fish for swimming,” said Mr. Madlongolwana, adding that it was the job of any functional government to provide educational and economic opportunities for its people.

Critics of Mr. Ramaphosa argue that he sometimes appeared more concerned with placating factional battles within the party than with making difficult decisions that could benefit the country, such as firing ineffective government ministers. But Mr. Ramaphosa’s supporters say his measured approach has spared South Africa from crisis and turned around corrupted state institutions.

“The one thing that you can rely on with his presidency is that there’s a lot of political stability,” said Sarah Mokwebo, 32, who works for the national treasury department.

Mdumiseni Ntuli, the head of the party’s election campaign, said that the A.N.C. needed to do a better job of explaining to the Black middle class the specific reasons the country continues to face challenges, like the residual impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the economy.

While much of the A.N.C.’s campaigning plays out in spirited rallies in poor and working-class communities, engaging with middle-class voters takes more low-key forms: meetings in private homes, banquet lunches and dinners or forums on university campuses.

Mr. Ramaphosa’s typical stump speech with Black professionals involves highlighting the corrupt institutions, energy crisis, and broken ports and rail system that his administration inherited. He tries to paint a picture of a South Africa pointed in the right direction.

But the A.N.C. is vying against 51 opposition parties this year, and 11 of those have formed a bloc led by the Democratic Alliance, the country’s second largest party. The A.N.C. is still expected to dominate, but if it draws less than 50 percent of the vote, it will need to ally with one or more opposition parties to form a government.

Songezo Zibi, a former journalist and corporate communications official, launched a political party, Rise Mzansi, last year that aims to capture disgruntled, Black middle- and upper-class voters. One challenge, he said, was trying to motivate Black professionals to become politically active.

“The question they will ask is, ‘What are you going to do for me?’” he said. “They hang on the coattails of politicians to help them realize their dreams.”

For many Black professionals, the A.N.C.’s heyday came under Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded Nelson Mandela as president in 1999. Mr. Mbeki focused heavily on policies to ensure greater Black ownership of companies.

But backlash from those who felt that he left the poor behind led to the rise of Mr. Zuma, a populist who positioned himself as a champion of ordinary people. Mr. Zuma derided Black business people as “clever Blacks” who looked down on those with less education and wealth.

When Mr. Ramaphosa took over in 2018 from Mr. Zuma, who resigned under withering corruption allegations, Black business leaders were optimistic. Mr. Ramaphosa had become a billionaire after apartheid through A.N.C. policies that incentivized companies to give ownership to Black people. Many believed that he would champion Black entrepreneurs and was too well-off to be tempted by corruption.

Andile Nomlala, a 40-year-old entrepreneur working in real estate and agriculture, recalled a gathering before the 2019 election in the upscale Johannesburg suburb of Sandton, in which Mr. Ramaphosa met with about 300 Black professionals.

Speaking from a podium, Mr. Ramaphosa vowed to grow Black businesses and root out corruption in the party through good governance, Mr. Nomlala recalled.

“When I left the room there was nothing else in my heart than hope,” Mr. Nomlala said, and he cast his vote for the A.N.C. for the first time since the Mbeki presidency.

But the past five years have left him sour. He feels that Mr. Ramaphosa has been too slow in addressing the electricity crisis and holding corrupt officials accountable.

“We are utterly disappointed,” Mr. Nomlala said. “People are angry with the A.N.C.”