Why Ramaphosa may be the man to heal S. Africa's politics, economy

Saturday December 23 2017

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Sometime in late 2008, I had a candid chat with Moeletsi Mbeki, the younger brother of Thabo Mbeki, who was then the exiting president of South Africa. Moeletsi, a public intellectual and entrepreneur, pulled no punches: he told me his party and the party of the South African anti-apartheid struggle stalwarts – the African National Congress (ANC) – was cruising 100km per hour on the path of self-destruction, because of its leaders’ capriciousness, self-aggrandizement and conspicuous capitalist accumulation.

Moeletsi said that if ANC did not tame its leaders’ avarice and wanton corruption, it would, in the fullness of time, quickly lose its lustre among South Africans – black, mixed-race and white.


In the close to a decade since I spoke to Moeletsi, the ANC political fortunes have wobbled from bad to worse: in 2009, ANC’s popularity was at 68.5 per cent; today it has slumped to 54 per cent, losing a clean 15 percentage points. Moeletsi said black South Africans' unsatiated hunger for land, mass joblessness among the largely unskilled and undereducated blacks and lack of equal opportunities in education, for example, were driving them to exasperation and restlessness.

On Monday, December 18, the party picked Cyril Matamela Ramaphosa, 65, the former fiery trade unionist turned black oligarch, who has been deputising President Jacob Zuma since 2014. Ramaphosa is expected, barring any political tsunami, to become the fourth South African president and hopefully steer ANC to a convincing electoral victory come the 2019 general election.

In a tightly contested battle, Ramaphosa polled 2,440 votes against Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s (NDZ) 2,261. Some 4,700 delegates cast their votes early Monday morning and by afternoon, the winner had already been declared. NDZ's running mate was David Mabuza, the 57-year-old premier of Mpumalanga Province and a President Zuma core supporter, while Ramaphosa’s deputy is Lindiwe Sisulu, the human settlements minister and former wife of Kenyan-born, South African passport-carrying Prof Rok Ajulu. Prof Ajulu died on December 26, 2016 of pancreatic cancer and was buried in Bondo ka Ajulu, Siaya County.


Whoever was going to be picked as ANC president, the truth of the matter is ANC is still not in a good place. None of the two candidates was the real choice of the South African voter. The two, narrowed down after a process of elimination, were the devil’s alternative: Ramaphosa long ago stopped pretending he still cared about the mineworkers – today he has become a representative of international capital in South Africa, with his language always peppered with investors’ lingo. He has become part of a really small select cabal of local black capitalists, who are filthy rich amidst the grinding poverty prevalent among the mass of black people. 

NDZ, 68, subtly played the gender card, just like Hillary Rodham Clinton of the United States, hoping to make history as the first female president of South Africa. She was not her own woman: She did not come out to condemn the runaway corruption perpetrated by her ex-husband – President Jacob Zuma, whose government has been adjudged the worst in the 23 years that ANC has been at the helm. Hence her surname – Zuma – that she continues to append to her maiden name continues to hang on her like a milestone around her neck. NDZ divorced Zuma in 1998.

In 2009, Prof Ajulu, in Two Countries One Dream, a political economy text he edited that dwelt on the emerging democratic institutions and processes in Kenya and South Africa, he succinctly captured South Africa’s political foibles then as now:

“The Achilles' Heels of the South African political system, however, lies in two areas: one, the grinding poverty of the majority of the black South African, two, the widening disparities in the wealth between the white and black and increasingly between black and black, constitute a potential danger for the de-legitimization of  political institutions. Democratic stability cannot be built on political constituencies enmeshed in poverty. To the extent that these conditions remain, they will continue to undermine the legitimacy of the democratic institutions. The current contest within the ruling party ANC seem to suggest that contesting for control of the state and proximity to those who also control state-power is beginning to take centre stage within the different constituencies of the ruling party. The important question is whether such control would be used to deploy the state in a kleptocratic and authoritarian manner such as to compromise existing democratic institutions.”


Ramaphosa honed his political skills as a trade unionist – where he proved himself as a non-compromising and tough negotiator, as the leader of the all-powerful National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). He helped form NUM in 1982, as a young lawyer, and soon began representing the mineworkers for compensation and higher wages from the Boer employers.

Three years later, in 1985, Ramaphosa, with others, established the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), which was later to be part of a tripartite partner alongside the South Africa Communist Party (SACP) and ANC that formed the newly independent government of South Africa in 1994. Two years after forming COSATU, and three years before Nelson Mandela was released from Pollsmoor Prison, in 1990, Ramaphosa led one of the biggest labour strikes in South Africa organised by NUM. That strike, in 1987, put on notice both the Boers and the ANC government in exile that he was going to be a factor in a future South Africa negotiated co-existence.

As it is, when Mandela was released from prison, Ramaphosa, who in 1991 was made secretary-general of ANC, became a key figure of the Convention for Democratic South Africa (CODESA) that successfully negotiated a free and independent multiracial South Africa. Ramaphosa was also part of the team that drew up South Africa’s Constitution in the mid-1990s, one of the most liberal constitutions in the world. When, in 1996, he lost his chance to lead the liberation party as its president, Mandela advised him to immerse himself in the world of business. Mandela had taken to the young man’s liking, and indeed had wanted him to succeed him, but ANC had its owners.

The Thabo Mbeki (Xhosa) faction within the ANC was too strong for Ramaphosa, who at that time did not enjoy the support of the inner sanctum of ANC honchos who had lived in exile and who largely came from the Eastern Cape, and who controlled the party reins then. These factional supremacy battles were a manifestation of the division that has always existed between the ANC in exile that was for the longest time headquartered in Lusaka, Zambia, and internal ANC rebels, who fought the apartheid regime within and never left the country. In the end, Mandela was persuaded to pick the son of Govan Mbeki, another anti-apartheid veteran who, like Mandela, had spent a quarter of century at the infamous Robben Islands Prison, off Cape Town.


An angry, bitter and sulking Ramaphosa, who hails from the small ethnic community of Venda in the north of South Africa, in the province of Limpopo, on the border with Zimbabwe, traded his trade unionism credentials – bearded face and ordinary blue suits – for bespoke crimson suits and a clean-shaven face, ready to be socialised by capital. Using the good offices of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), a body formed by the government to propel black entrepreneurs by encouraging them to form and acquire (white) companies, Ramaphosa used BEE to acquire unimaginable wealth in the name of (black) affirmative action. In 2001, he formed the Sanduka Group – Sanduka in Venda means change – which helped him to multiply his growing wealth by leaps and bounds.

A brother-in-law of Patrice Motsepe – the richest black South African – Ramaphosa married Tshepo, his younger sister, and together with Patrice, formed one of the most powerful black South African family oligarchies.

As a non-executive director at Lonmin, the company that ran the Marikana platinum mines, Ramaphosa, in 2012, found himself embroiled in the saga of the 34 miners who were mowed down by the South African police. Ramaphosa’s traced emails to the police were believed to have asked them to come hard on the miners.

The result was the unmitigated deaths of unarmed miners. Although the Farlam Commission absolved him of any wrongdoing, some critics, such as Dali Mpofu and Julius Malema, the firebrand former ANC Youth League (ANCYL) leader and now boss of his own political party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), have continued pointing an accusing figure at Ramaphosa.

All said and done, could Ramaphosa actually be the man to heal and restore the glory of South African politics and economy? A country once described as the “miracle” of the African continent. It is significant that Ramaphosa comes from a small community and, hence, may help deflect the sometimes subterranean antagonism between the Xhosa and Zulu powerful forces with the ANC party ranks.

Dauti Kahura is a senior writer for 'The Elephant', a Nairobi-based publication. Twitter: @KahuraDauti