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As Ramaphosa Hails a ‘New Dawn,’ South Africans See More of the Same

As Ramaphosa Hails a ‘New Dawn,’ South Africans See More of the Same

Refiloe Mapanya had closely followed the tumultuous changes in South Africa’s leadership in newest days: a political knife fight inside the long-governing African National Congress that brought to power President Cyril Ramaphosa.

But Friday evening, midway through Mr. Ramaphosa’s first state of the nation address, Ms. Mapanya switched channels and watched her favorite show, “Generations,” the long-running soap opera about black South African life in the post-apartheid era.

Mr. Ramaphosa agreed a “new dawn.” Ms. Mapanya was skeptical.

“I don’t think changing President Zuma will change anything,” she said on Saturday, referring to Jacob Zuma, the scandal-plagued leader who was forced out after nearly nine years as president. “At the end of the day, as long as you have power, even the new president will do the things the other guy did.”

That doubt, however, was not enough to change the way she votes.

“A.N.C. is the best,” said Ms. Mapanya, 27, who studies business administration. “It’s the one that took South Africa out of apartheid. Yes, it’s the great. I wouldn’t vote for any other party.”

Many others at Maponya Mall, Soweto’s most chic shopping center, echoed Ms. Mapanya’s comments Saturday morning. Few expected the sudden change in presidents — after several days of intense negotiations among a few party leaders — would bring change to their lives, though they expressed the hope that it would.

They also displayed the resignation shared by many A.N.C. supporters: They had lost hope in the party but could not bring themselves to leave it.

Many in Soweto, the black township south of Johannesburg famed for its resistance to apartheid, cannot imagine leaving the party because of the indisputable good it brought to their lives. Maponya Mall itself, built a decade ago, was proof of that.

Inside the mall, SUVs from Mazda, Kia and Renault were on display. The storefronts were mostly South African brands and restaurants, but McDonald’s, Burger King, Timberland and Le Coq Sportif, the French manufacturer of sportswear, had also set up shop there.

Snooks Estates, a real estate agent, advertised properties for sale across Soweto, including a two-bedroom ranch-style house with a fitted kitchen, a carport, and a wall and gate, for $82,000.

Dipuo Kalodi, 34, a domestic worker, said she had cast ballots for the A.N.C. in every election since the end of apartheid in 1994. Mr. Ramaphosa is “the same as Zuma,” she said, adding, “They’ve been together for quite a long time. So what can you expect from that?”

“I keep thinking it might change, it might change, let me give him some time — but there’s no change,” she said, adding with a laugh, “I’m a strong fighter.”

Lebo Ngema, who appeared to the mall with her three children, said that the political change “really doesn’t have that much impact on me. No matter what you can do, you can vote, you can speak out, nothing much is going to be done.”

“But I guess we’ll see with this new one,” she added.

Immediately after he was sworn in as South Africa’s president on Thursday, Mr. Ramaphosa, who had served as Mr. Zuma’s deputy for more than three years, started trying to change perceptions. Mr. Ramaphosa went for a walkalong Cape Town’s waterfront in an exercise of calculated spontaneity.

Startled witnesses took photographs, and Mr. Ramaphosa posed for selfies. The images were shared so widely that the new president went jogging the following morning. The contrast was stark: Mr. Zuma traveled only in motorcades, surrounded by a phalanx of bodyguards.

In his state of the nation address, Mr. Ramaphosa said that “a new dawn is upon us.” He promised to resurrect the economy and build jobs.

“This is the year in which we will turn the tide of corruption in our public institutions,” he said, adding, “We are determined to build a society defined by decency and integrity, that does not tolerate the plunder of public resources, nor the theft by corporate criminals of the hard-earned savings of ordinary people.”

A onetime anti-apartheid labor leader, Mr. Ramaphosa went into business in the late 1990s; thanks hugely to his ties to the A.N.C., he quickly became one of the richest men on the continent, with a fortune now estimated at $450 million. He returned to politics full time in 2012.

In December, Mr. Ramaphosa was elected leader of the A.N.C., defeating Mr. Zuma’s preferred candidate. He and his allies then pushed Mr. Zuma to resign from the presidency, though his term did not expire until mid-2019. The A.N.C. was split in two factions.

Mr. Ramaphosa eventually prevailed with an argument that spoke to the party’s sense of self-preservation: Getting rid of the unpopular Mr. Zuma as soon as probable would help efforts to rebuild the party before national elections in 2019.

To many, the back-room deals that ultimately led to Mr. Ramaphosa’s elevation reinforced the belief that a handful of A.N.C. elites had decided the country’s future with little regard for the people.

 

“They were talking among themselves; there was no information we were receiving,” said John Baloyi, 43, a postal worker. “I was uncertain about the future of our country. I thought maybe there would be violence, and there would be loss of life. I was scared actually.”

But Mr. Ramaphosa, he said, was preferable to his predecessor.

“That man was a businessmen,” Mr. Baloyi said. “He understands what he’s talking about.”

Teboho Sephohle, 30, was waiting to open a bank account — his first — at the mall. He said he worked odd jobs in the clothing and construction industries.

In the 2016 municipal elections, Mr. Sephohle said he had volunteered for the local A.N.C. ward leader after he was promised a job. But he was still waiting.

“Maybe we can get jobs or something with Ramaphosa,” he said. “We’ll wait and see.”

Mr. Ramaphosa’s state of the nation address, and the pageantry surrounding the annual speech, also raised eyebrows in Soweto.

A few days after threatening to remove Mr. Zuma through a humiliating no-confidence vote in Parliament, Mr. Ramaphosa thanked Mr. Zuma for his service “during which the country made efficient progress in several areas of development.”

In South Africa, the state of the nation address has become an extravagant annual party for the governing class, a mixture of politics and entertainment. The evening begins as officials walk into Parliament on a red carpet where they pose for the cameras and answer questions about their designer clothes.

Parliament officials said that about $370,000 was budgeted for this year’s address, though opposition officials have said that the real cost was nearly three times as much.

“They’re spending a lot of money just on catering, the money that’s supposed to be assisting people,” said Nett Phamotse, 45, who is employed as a school maintenance worker.

Some of the dresses worn on the red carpet, he said, were the equivalent of “six months’ salary.”

“They’re just doing each other favors,” he said.

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