A man for all seasons

2008-02-25 00:00

If South Africa were a more mature and better-governed country, Cyril Ramaphosa would be a shoo-in as the next president. As a skilled lawyer, trade union leader, political organiser, constitutional negotiator and conciliator of international repute, Ramaphosa lacks only one obvious qualification — a track record in government. The fact that he is not next in line to succeed the current president has more to do with Thabo Mbeki’s own insecurities than any shortcomings on Ramaphosa’s part. Indeed, Mbeki’s failure to pave the way for a well-regarded successor and leaving the field open to the likes of Jacob Zuma has already become a regrettable aspect of his legacy.

That is not to say we know as much as we should about the self-effacing Ramaphosa, whose core beliefs — and political ambitions —lie concealed behind a composed and urbane exterior. Even those close to him claim not to know “what really makes Cyril tick”. Trade unionists regard him as a union man at heart; communists like to think he is one of theirs, as do socialists and humanists; while the business community believes he has absorbed the lessons of the post-socialist age. This ability to keep people guessing as to his true feelings goes a long way towards explaining why Ramaphosa is such an exceptional negotiator.

Born in 1952 in a Johannesburg township to a Venda policeman and his community activist wife, the young Ramaphosa showed qualities of leadership from an early age. A religious Lutheran, his early energies were channelled into the Student Christian Movement, which brought him into contact with the poor and uneducated — as well as the Black Consciousness ideology then sweeping through tribal colleges across South Africa. As a young student leader at Turfloop, he was detained twice, spending many lonely months in solitary confinement.

Although he seldom speaks of it, detention appears to have had a profound effect on Ramaphosa, whose search for a more effective instrument of opposition to apartheid than mere protest led him into legal practice and then into the trade union movement, where he was primarily responsible for building the National Union of Mineworkers (Num) into the biggest and most politically formidable union in the country.

It was the 1987 mineworkers’ strike that transformed Ramaphosa from being a significant unionist to a central participant in the struggle to make South Africa ungovernable. The SACP came to regard him as an indispensable ally in the struggle; while the Mbeki’ites in exile viewed him as a potential rival and threat. Some of the latter tensions — which grew during Ramaphosa’s subsequent rise to prominence at Nelson Mandela’s side and within the ANC post-1994 — are still being played out today.

In compiling this comprehensive and readable account of Ramaphosa’s life, Anthony Butler – an English-born, Oxbridge-educated UCT academic — has had to rely on interviews with his subject’s associates and contemporaries rather than any engagement with an initially hostile Ramaphosa himself. Thinking no doubt that the book would be seen as an attempt to insinuate himself into the ANC leadership struggle, Ramaphosa kept his distance from the author, although, to judge from his appearance at the book’s launch, he seems at ease with the product. Butler owns up to the disadvantage of being a latecomer to South African politics — and from time to time it shows, especially in various factual errors in the text and his contemptuous and politically-correct references to white opponents of apartheid as well as the business community.

In a thoughtful appraisal of his by now wealthy subject’s strengths and weaknesses, the author points out that Ramaphosa’s political history, connections and personality make him one of very few people who could step in and heal the current divisions within the ANC.

“He is uniquely able to build on the moral authority of the 1996 constitutional settlement and restore life to the practice of democracy.” On the other hand, the fact that whites and big business feel comfortable with him is probably a major disadvantage and the reason why he slipped so far down the ANC rankings at Polokwane.

As a young man, Ramaphosa predicted that one day he would be president of South Africa and his entire public life has served as a preparation for that role. Yet, as his political and business careers has matured, ambition seems to have become tempered by a fear of losing. There seems no doubt that Ramaphosa is up to the job of president, but does he really want it? That is a question to which only he knows the answer.

Cyril Ramaphosa; Anthony Butler; Jacana; R185.

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