From pandemic to politics, tough road ahead for South African president

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, pictured here in May 2020, has come under fire for his handling of the pandemic and delays in the rollout of vaccines
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, pictured here in May 2020, has come under fire for his handling of the pandemic and delays in the rollout of vaccines - World Health Organization/AFP
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Johannesburg (AFP)

South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers his annual address to the nation on Thursday while appearing increasingly fragile politically, hit by massive health and economic crises as well as a divided ruling party.

Each February he outlines his national plan for the year, but this time he will be hard put to try to uplift a pandemic-weary and more impoverished population, while battling for political survival within his ANC.

His country is Africa's hardest-hit by the coronavirus pandemic, which has sent the economy tanking to its worst in many decades, and a slew of government officials are embroiled in embarrassing cases of looting of funds meant to help fight the pandemic.

His government has come under fire for its handling of the pandemic, and lately for delays in acquiring and rolling out vaccines.

"He's going to get it from all sides," said Amanda Gouws, political scientist at Stellenbosch University.

Ramaphosa will have to perform a juggling act to reignite public confidence while also not agitating a rival faction of the African National Congress (ANC) party to ensure his survival.

He came to power in 2018 after an internal struggle in the ANC resulted in Jacob Zuma being forced to resign on the back of corruption scandals.

A year later he won a popular mandate following national elections.

- 'Absent president' -

But now Ramaphosa appears to be struggling to firmly stamp his authority over the 109-year-old party of Nelson Mandela and more broadly throughout the country -- the continent's most advanced economy.

"As long as you have to fight the battle inside your own party, it's very difficult to actually create a sense of stability outside the party," Gouws said.

He faces mounting hostility from factions within the ANC and opposition groups that accuse him of failing to rein in corruption.

Ramaphosa has been careful not to ruffle feathers, refusing to directly chastise fellow party members implicated in corruption, including Zuma and secretary general Ace Magashule.

"His hands are tied. If he goes against the Zuma faction we are going to see a very serious political fallout," warned Gouws.

His predecessor, who still commands support in the ANC, has derided the country's top court, refusing to appear before a panel which is investigating state corruption during his nine-year tenure.

Instead he appears to be getting cosy with one of Ramaphosa's most formidable political rivals, leader of the leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) Julius Malema.

Photographs of the beaming politicians released after their meeting last week fuelled rumours among South Africans of a possible alliance aimed at toppling Ramaphosa.

The largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, wants Ramaphosa "to show South Africans that he is in fact the man in charge".

"At the moment it looks like we have an absent president," said Gouws

The country has seen nearly 1.5 million Covid infections and more than 46,000 deaths, and its vaccine rollout has been troubled.

This week authorities delayed the start of a much-anticipated vaccination campaign after a study showed the AstraZeneca jabs failed to prevent mild and moderate infection from the variant first identified in South Africa.

Ramaphosa, who gives regular updates on the coronavirus fight, recently appeared teary and visibly worn-out during one of his broadcast addresses to the nation.

The former trade unionist who later became a wealthy businessman should deal with "the prevailing crisis of confidence and legitimacy that the government is facing from the people," warned Sizwe Pamla, spokesman for Cosatu, the largest trade union federation and an ANC ally.