JOHANNESBURG — The motorcade of black luxury vehicles carrying President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa rumbled through the narrow township streets, swerved around potholes filled with stale water from backed-up drainage ditches and stopped near the concrete shell of an unfinished government-supplied house.
Mr. Ramaphosa had come to Tembisa, a township about 30 minutes northeast of Johannesburg, ahead of local elections to sell residents on all that his party, the African National Congress, had supposedly done to improve their lives.
“I see development everywhere,” Mr. Ramaphosa said from atop a mobile campaign stage, eliciting incredulous jeers from hundreds of otherwise supportive residents.
Mr. Ramaphosa, a 68-year-old wealthy former business investor, ascended to the nation’s highest political office three years ago on a reputation as an exceptional negotiator and consensus builder. He was anointed by Nelson Mandela to help broker the end of apartheid. Two decades later, Mr. Ramaphosa outmaneuvered his predecessor, Jacob Zuma, to win control of the governing African National Congress — and the country.
When South Africans go to the polls on Monday to elect local government officials, Mr. Ramaphosa’s name will not be on the ballot. But as the country’s most popular politician, he faces perhaps his most difficult task yet: persuading citizens to give the African National Congress, known as the A.N.C., another chance.
This once heroic liberation party has been tarnished by a trail of corruption, inept governance and internal bickering that has left much of the country in social and economic turmoil.
Mr. Ramaphosa promoted vaccinations in early October in Katlehong, east of Johannesburg.Credit…Themba Hadebe/Associated Press
When Mr. Ramaphosa took over the presidency, he was seen as a traditional and measured — if boring — personality, and a much-needed stabilizing force following the tumultuous, scandal-tarred tenure of his populist predecessor.
Yet the public’s early excitement about his presidency — Ramaphoria, they called it — has given way to stiff headwinds.
His vow to rejuvenate a beleaguered economy and labor market has been hampered by the Covid-19 pandemic. His greatest strength — that he allows democratic processes to play out and draws on a wide range of views before taking action — has also been criticized as an unwillingness to make tough choices.
His rival, Mr. Zuma, has continued to be a thorn in his side, with a loyal following that, in July, helped to incite some of the worst rioting in South Africa since the end of apartheid, the authorities said. The unrest resulted in more than 300 casualties and hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. Many criticized Mr. Ramaphosa’s response as slow, and the police and military as ineffectual.
Now the elections present yet another test, one his political opponents may well exploit if the A.N.C. underperforms.
“This will become ammunition for them to argue that he’s not the right person to lead the A.N.C.,” said Chris Matlhako, the second deputy general secretary of the South African Communist Party, an alliance partner of the A.N.C.
Born and raised in Soweto, Mr. Ramaphosa parlayed student activism into an early career as a trade union leader, battling some of the nation’s biggest mining companies.
He beat Mr. Zuma to become the A.N.C.’s secretary general in 1991, but he later lost a bid to become Mandela’s deputy president. He left politics and earned a fortune investing in businesses through Black economic empowerment efforts meant to redress the inequality apartheid created.
He returned to the political fold in 2014 to serve as Mr. Zuma’s deputy president during a period of notorious corruption. Mr. Ramaphosa has insisted that he never knew the full extent of the corruption, and that he worked from the inside to try to effect change.
After defeating a Zuma ally to become the A.N.C. president in 2017, he was part of an effort the following year that pressured Mr. Zuma to resign as president before his term was up.
Through his spokesman, Mr. Ramaphosa declined interview requests.
Mr. Ramaphosa has risen above critics within the party “and embraced the whole people,” said Sihle Zikalala, the premier and top A.N.C. official in KwaZulu-Natal, Mr. Zuma’s home province. “He didn’t use his position to purge others. And he has been that kind of person who does not isolate people because they oppose him.”
In responding to the pandemic, Mr. Ramaphosa has regularly convened his ministers for hourslong sessions that include exhaustive presentations from ministry officials, said Lindiwe Zulu, the minister of social development.
“Sometimes I think he consults too much,” Ms. Zulu said. “There are times when I feel like, ‘You know what, just make that decision.’”
Ultimately, though, Ms. Zulu said she saw the wisdom of the president’s process. He is forceful when he needs to be. He garnered praise across Africa for scolding rich countries for hoarding Covid-19 vaccines, and eventually brokering agreements to increase vaccine production and supply on the continent.
Ms. Zulu recalled the president being unhappy that South Africans had to wait in long lines, risking exposure, for their monthly 350 rand ($24) Covid-19 relief grants. He ordered her to find a more efficient way to distribute them using technology — though residents have complained that the new system has glitches.
“He’s always also very able to just tell you straight: ‘Not happy with what has happened there. I think you can do better,’” Ms. Zulu said.
For many South Africans, Mr. Ramaphosa has lacked that assertiveness at some critical moments.
When his health minister, Zweli Mkhize, a prominent A.N.C. official, was implicated this year in a corruption scandal involving a Covid-19 communications contract, Mr. Ramaphosa never condemned him. In fact, when Mr. Mkhize resigned after a damning report by a special investigator, Mr. Ramaphosa thanked him, saying, “He has served the nation well.”
Mr. Ramaphosa told reporters that he wanted to respect Mr. Mkhize’s right to due process.
“It would have been helpful to sort of say, ‘I fired Minister Zweli Mkhize,’” said Mmusi Maimane, the former leader of the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance.
According to an Afrobarometer survey, 64 percent of the public believes corruption has increased over the past year, despite Mr. Ramaphosa’s pledge to clean up after Mr. Zuma. The former president is being criminally prosecuted on corruption charges, and his tenure was so stained by financial scandals that it led to the creation of an investigative commission, which has been running for three years.
When in July, looting and vandalism engulfed KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng Provinces, many saw it as a result of Mr. Ramaphosa’s failure to resolve the A.N.C.’s internal war and bring unemployment under control. The unrest started with Zuma loyalists protesting his imprisonment for contempt, but escalated into mass chaos through a coordinated effort by forces within the A.N.C. trying to sabotage the leadership, party officials said.
Mr. Ramaphosa quickly reached out to political, civic and religious leaders, encouraging them to broker peace, allies said. He worried that an aggressive deployment of security forces could lead to more bloodshed, reminiscent of apartheid-era crackdowns.
He knows full well what it is like to be criticized for state violence. He was on the board of a company that owned a mine when the police killed 34 striking miners in 2012. He had urged the authorities to intervene against the strikers and is now a defendant in a lawsuit filed by families of the victims.
After the recent unrest, Mr. Ramaphosa waited four days to address the nation, speaking in his typical dry, dispassionate monotone. He mobilized the military on the fifth day.
Mr. Ramaphosa would later reshuffle his cabinet. But even so, he shifted some ministers seen as ineffective to other positions rather than firing them in order to appease internal A.N.C. factions, analysts said.
That has not stopped Zuma loyalists from trying to use the unrest to chip away at Mr. Ramaphosa’s credibility.
Tony Yengeni, a top official in the A.N.C. and a Zuma supporter, said the unrest exposed the absence of a leader like Mandela, who “would have gone to where the fires were burning and engaged with the rank and file people who were angry.”
Despite the criticism, Mr. Ramaphosa enjoys high favorability ratings.
Two recent surveys found that he was more popular than the party he leads.
“The A.N.C. brand has suffered in the last decade,” Fikile Mbalula, the party’s head of elections and the country’s transportation minister, said in a written response to questions.
So the task of turning the tide has fallen to Mr. Ramaphosa, who seamlessly transitions between different local languages on the campaign trail. He dances a small shuffle as crowds greet him singing: “On your marks! Get set! We are ready for Ramaphosa!”
He has been brutally honest about the A.N.C.’s failure to select competent local candidates. But he also tries to strike a bargain with voters.
Last Thursday, visiting a municipality outside of Johannesburg that suffers regular power outages, Mr. Ramaphosa pushed back against a message some residents displayed on signs: “No electricity, no vote.” Power failures happen everywhere, he said, even in California.
South Africans shouldn’t forget who had brought them electricity in the first place, he said.
“So if you don’t want the A.N.C., who will you put in power who can give you electricity?” Mr. Ramaphosa asked. “There’s no one.”