There has been a rumour that former president Nelson Mandela's preferred successor was actually Cyril Ramaphosa, instead of Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded the first democratically elected president in post-apartheid South Africa.
The reasons behind Mandela's preference were never aired publicly. Quite often, critical evaluations of Thabo Mbeki's leadership bring out this seemingly emotional position that if Nelson Mandela had his way, Cyril Ramaphosa would have taken over the leadership of the party and that of the country after Mandela's gracious retirement from politics.
Among the assumptions that could be made from this, is that Mandela might have seen in Cyril the type of leader that South Africa needs. Taking into account the fact that Mandela was a conciliatory leader who always prioritised nation-building instead of narrow partisan and sectarian politics, it can be inferred that Mandela might have thought of Ramaphosa as a conciliatory leader who could unite the fragile nation.
When Mandela expressed his rumoured preference of Ramaphosa, among areas where Ramaphosa had shown leadership was in relation to his role within the trade union movement and how he used that stage to mobilise public marches against the apartheid government. Those are the marches that formed part of internal struggles that severely disrupted the apartheid system and laid bare its vulnerability in the face of solidarity by resolute South Africans.
Ramaphosa is also credited for his sterling leadership in the process of constitutional negotiations that would lead to the transition from apartheid to democracy.
Indeed, this constituted sufficient experience for Mandela to cast judgement on Ramaphosa's leadership, preferring him over Mbeki. That said, this question could never be answered satisfactorily because Ramaphosa had not had an opportunity to cast light on this question and ascend to the stage in which we can fully get a sense as to why Madiba preferred him.
Was it because Mandela knew way more than we did as a nation? Probably; he knew exactly what type of leader could take the country forward in a positive way.
Mandela was no ordinary politician; he was a very perceptive diplomat. His achievement to become a uniting figure in South Africa is an indication that he did understand the pulse of this nation, and he responded accordingly. He was not perfect either, and he was known to be a hardliner on certain issues. However, he knew how to diffuse political tension and get his way. He did that with magnanimity and warm charm. The question for me is whether some of those traits of leadership are found in one, Cyril Ramaphosa. If so, would that really make a difference?
If indeed Mandela got it right with Ramaphosa, it should soon become clear as to why. If Mandela believed Ramaphosa would be a good leader, this should be evident even if Ramaphosa is assuming leadership under circumstances that are different and more tense than those under which Mandela concluded he would be better.
Perhaps Madiba did foresee what was going to happen in terms of leadership degeneration in the country, and he factored in that scenario when arriving at that conclusion. Perhaps Mandela's preference of Ramaphosa over Mbeki was as random as rolling the dice. It could be the case that Madiba had a soft spot for Ramaphosa. We do not know.
This question should be fully settled as Ramaphosa's leadership is about to be seen and tested. Will history correct itself in the form of Ramaphosa doing what he was meant to do? If this sounds a bit religious, mea culpa!
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