Three party leaders slug it out in South Africa’s May election

The May 8 race could test the ruling ANC’s long-held dominance.
Three party leaders slug it out in South Africa's May election

South Africa goes to the polls on Wednesday, May 8 with the leaders of the three main parties vying for votes in a race that could test the ruling ANC’s long-held dominance.

Here is a look at the three party leaders:

The shrewd president

Cyril Ramaphosa
South African ruling party African National Congress President and South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo by GIANLUIGI GUERCIA / AFP)

Cyril Ramaphosa, the leader of the ruling ANC party, finally came to power last year after a dramatic and varied career intertwined with the birth of modern South Africa.

He was a pioneering young trade union leader, an anti-apartheid activist and the Nelson Mandela protege who led talks to end white-minority rule and helped write the new constitution.

When Mandela walked out of jail in 1990, Ramaphosa was standing alongside him.

But after missing out on becoming Mandela’s successor as president, Ramaphosa instead became a hugely wealthy businessman through stakes in McDonalds, Coca-Cola, mining and telecoms, and developing a taste for breeding rare cattle.

In 2012, his image was badly tarnished when 34 striking mine workers were killed by police at the Marikana platinum mine, operated by London-listed Lonmin, where he was then a non-executive director.

Ramaphosa had called for a crackdown on the strikers, whom he accused of “dastardly criminal” behaviour.

He returned to politics to become Jacob Zuma’s vice president in 2014, often drawing criticism for failing to speak out against corruption and government mismanagement.

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Renowned for his patience and strategic thinking, Ramaphosa narrowly beat off pro-Zuma rivals to take over leadership of the ANC party in 2017 and then claim the presidency when Zuma was forced out last year.

Ramaphosa attracts a support base crossing South Africa’s racial and class divides, but still faces strong opposition from inside the ANC.

“This is a decisive moment in our country, in the history of South Africa, this is a moment when… we choose hope over despair,” he told supporters at the final ANC campaign rally.

Born in Johannesburg’s Soweto township, Ramaphosa took up activism while studying law in the 1970s, and spent 11 months in solitary confinement in 1974.

The young opposition leader

Mmusi Maimane
South African main opposition party, Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Mmusi Maimane. (Photo by Michele Spatari/NurPhoto)

Mmusi Maimane, 38, is the first black leader of the Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s main opposition party.

Raised in the Johannesburg township of Soweto -heartland of the anti-apartheid struggle -Maimane only joined the DA in 2009 and was fast-tracked through its ranks to take control in 2015.

His rapid promotion led to accusations that he was being used by the party’s senior white activists to cover up lack of reform within the party.

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A gifted orator and smooth campaigner, he has kept the DA in the spotlight, broadened its appeal and held together its warring factions.

But he has struggled to land punches on Ramaphosa or to convince many black middle-class voters that the DA is not still a “white” party.

A devout Christian, he has a masters degree in Theology and regularly preaches at church, where he met his white wife, Natalie.

Before getting into politics, Maimane ran his own management consultancy and lectured at a business school in Johannesburg.

His reserved leadership style could come under question if the DA fail to make significant gains on top of its 22 percent of the vote in the 2014 election.

The radical firebrand

Julius Malema
South African far-left and opposition party Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader, Julius Malema. (Photo by Michele Spatari / AFP)

Julius Malema, 38, is the former ANC youth leader who launched the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party in 2013 and, against all the odds, has turned it into a political force.

He was kicked out of the ruling party after coming into conflict with the leadership but has thrived as a rebel, delivering fiery speeches spiced with jokes and digs at Ramaphosa, the ANC and South Africa’s white minority.

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Presenting himself as the voice of the young and unemployed, he demands the seizure of land from whites without compensation and the nationalisation of the mines and banks.

His threat to the ANC was underlined last year when Ramaphosa adopted a similar stance on land reform to try to hold onto voters.

Wearing a red beret and styling himself as “commander in chief”, Malema hopes to ride a growing wave of discontent among the poorest of South Africans, 25 years after the end of apartheid.

During Jacob Zuma’s reign as president, he led his lawmakers in a campaign to disrupt parliament by chanting and heckling, before being thrown out by security officers.


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