Ray Hartley Editor: BusinessLIVE
Cyril Ramaphosa holds up the newly signed South African Constitution, alongside Nelson Mandela, president at the time, in September 1996. Picture: ROBBIE BOTHA/BUSINESS DAY
Cyril Ramaphosa holds up the newly signed South African Constitution, alongside Nelson Mandela, president at the time, in September 1996. Picture: ROBBIE BOTHA/BUSINESS DAY

When Cyril Ramaphosa was young, he told a friend that he would one day be president. That burning ambition has been the driver through his career in the trade unions, as a constitutional negotiator and as a businessman.

Now SA’s “nearly-man” has finally made it to the top.

His early influences were in the black consciousness movement at the University of the North, where he was a leader of the Students Christian Association. He, and others such as a young Frank Chikane, politicised this movement and it stepped into the gap left after the decimation of the black consciousness leadership by BJ Vorster’s police state in the 1970s.

Ramaphosa would spend two long stretches in solitary confinement for his association with the black consciousness leadership. He emerged from detention bitter, saying: “When I was in detention, I came to realise that friends are like teabags. You boil the water. And you use them once.”

After completing his law degree he became an organiser for Cusa, the black consciousness trade union movement, and it was here that he began organising mineworkers and had his first encounter with the underground ANC.

Many of the young black consciousness activists who left SA for exile were in for a rude awakening. The state of the liberation movements most closely aligned to their politics — the PAC and Azapo — was abysmal.

They turned to the ANC, which was, by contrast, a well-organised, well-resourced movement with “embassies” all over Africa and Europe. It had a trained military wing and held the promise of one day taking power.

Ramaphosa changed horses and brought the National Union of Mineworkers into the broad ANC fold. More than that, the NUM would become one of the more politicised and openly ANC-supporting unions in the country.

He played a key role in the formation of Cosatu, presiding over its founding congress and ensuring that it too was broadly aligned with the ANC and the mass democratic movement.

Ramaphosa become part of the mass democratic movement’s key underground structure, which maintained contact with the exiled ANC. He met and became close to the SACP leader, Joe Slovo, and liaised with other leaders such as Mac Maharaj.

The mining compounds, where workers slept on concrete bunks, were patrolled by private security and were a no-go zone for union organisers. But once Ramaphosa had persuaded mine management to allow his people in, they become a no-go zone for management and the NUM grew exponentially.

By the mid-1980s, the NUM had become the country’s largest union and it began to assert itself.

In 1987, Ramaphosa led the union into the country’s biggest labour conflict — the mineworkers’ strike. It was to be a gruelling three-month war of attrition, at the end of which there were no winners.

Workers failed to win most of their demands and the mining houses were rocked financially.

But the strike elevated Ramaphosa to the national stage. Among those who took note were Robben Island prisoners such as Kgalema Motlanthe and Nelson Mandela.

Ramaphosa would meet with Mandela before his release and the two were inseparable as he took his first steps back into public life in 1990. Ramaphosa was famously at his side when he gave his first speech on the balcony of the Cape Town City Hall.

In 1991, Ramaphosa stunned the exiled ANC when he defeated Alfred Nzo and become secretary-general.

Mandela began to publicly remark on Ramaphosa’s leadership skills and it was soon plain that he was the first choice to succeed him.

Ramaphosa was by now a major public figure, leading the ANC in talks over the new constitution.

But the exiles regrouped and fought a behind-the-scenes battle to elevate Thabo Mbeki.

Mandela was forced to relent. He chose Mbeki as his successor and appointed him deputy president.

Ramaphosa emerged as the key architect of the final Constitution, which has been hailed for its progressive protection of rights. The National Party wanted special protection for minorities, a federal state and a permanent power-sharing arrangement. It lost on all fronts.

FW de Klerk would remark of Ramaphosa: “His relaxed manner and convivial expression were contradicted by coldly calculating eyes, which seemed to be searching continuously for the softest spot in the defences of his opponents. His silver tongue and honeyed phrases lulled potential victims while his arguments relentlessly tightened around them.”

Ramaphosa would complete the drafting of the final Constitution by the newly elected Parliament in 1996, but his mind was already elsewhere.

He had been approached by Dikgang Moseneke — later deputy chief justice — and the Soweto businessman Nthato Motlana to help assemble a consortium to take a stake in assets being hived off by Anglo American.

Ramaphosa was soon running this consortium and emerged as its leader when it took a majority stake in Johnnic, a company which included industrial and media assets — among them Business Day and the Sunday Times.

Ramaphosa oversaw the selling off of assets and, following a bitter corporate war with HCI — headed by Marcel Golding, his former deputy at the NUM — the remnants of Johnnic were wound down.

Ramaphosa said: “The banks were empowered, the advisers were empowered, the merchant bankers, the lawyers and the accountants were all empowered, and the very people who were meant to be empowered were not empowered and the they ended up walking away with zero.”

The deal may have gone sour, but he now had leverage, some capital of his own and a reputation with business leaders. He would spend the next two decades building Shanduka, a conglomerate with interests in everything from mining to telecoms.

Unlike the shambolic Johnnic venture, which corralled more than three dozen interests into one venture, Shanduka was Ramaphosa’s company, run the Ramaphosa way. It eschewed minority stakes in favour of controlling holdings in companies chosen for their returns.

By the mid-2000s, Ramaphosa was no longer an “empowerment beneficiary”. He was a powerful force in business in his own right.

He was also a farmer. When he placed a bid of R18m for a buffalo, he was caricatured as hopelessly out of touch with the desperately poor. He apologised, even though the buffalo was a business asset and high prices such as these have been seen many times.

He enjoyed farming and was clearly good at it. He declared to Parliament that his game farm, Ntaba Nyoni Estates, had a value in excess of R120m.

He became a pioneering importer of the Ankole cattle breed into SA using laboratory reproduction and recently produced a book of photographs of these animals with their fabulously long horns. He would sell one of them for R640,000.

But business had been a detour. He now returned to his first passion — politics.

In early 2012, he won the favour of President Jacob Zuma by expelling Julius Malema from the ANC. Malema had been suspended and Ramaphosa chaired the appeal that turned this into expulsion.

The elastic began to stretch to breaking point as he sat on dozens of boards from MTN to Standard Bank. But it was his shareholding in a platinum mining company, Lonmin, that was to prove his largest challenge.

Ramaphosa was on the board of the company when police massacred 34 strikers in a hail of automatic gun fire in August 2012.

Malema was to get his revenge, launching a relentless public assault on Ramaphosa over the shootings and even holding him personally responsible for ordering the killing because he had written an email calling for “concomitant action” to be taken against the strikers.

An exhaustive commission investigation cleared Ramaphosa, but the stain remained. Ramaphosa was moved to publicly apologise.

“I take full responsibility for my role in it. Back then I felt that the situation should be dealt with by the law. It was inappropriate language. I cannot try to be smart about it.”

At the end of 2012, Zuma picked Ramaphosa to run as his deputy at the ANC elective conference, a move aimed at pacifying an urban elite disillusioned with the series of corruption scandals which had engulfed Zuma.

Ramaphosa won, winning more votes in the ANC deputy presidential contest that Zuma won in the presidential election.

Ramaphosa calculated that he needed to play an “insider game” within the ANC, confining his criticisms of Zuma to meetings behind closed doors and presenting the public with shows of unity. He was seen at Zuma’s side, grinning and laughing as the ANC protected Zuma in scandal after scandal.

Ramaphosa’s eye was on the prize — winning a majority of the nearly 5,000 voting delegates to the December 2017 conference.

He succeeded in doing this, but his profile with the broader public suffered as he was seen as supporting Zuma by omission. Towards the end of the year, Ramaphosa finally broke ranks and called on those involved in state capture to be prosecuted and the money to be returned.

An increasingly bitter fight for the presidency saw sex scandals and even allegations that he was a wife-beater being aired in public.

Ramaphosa said: “I have to be prevented at all costs from ascending to the position of president of the ANC. Some have even said it will happen over their dead bodies. I have not committed any crimes, I have not stolen any money, I have not looted state resources.”

Ramaphosa, who was backed by Cosatu and the SACP in his campaign for the presidency, also advocated the ANC policy of “radical economic transformation”.

He was outspoken about the Treasury’s loss of independence, lamenting the departure of Pravin Gordhan as finance minister and later the resignation of budget director Michael Sachs, suggesting that he favoured strong fiscal control.

He proposed a “new deal” — a consensus between government, business and labour on how to rebuild the economy, suggesting he would play to his strengths as a negotiator when president of the country.

Hartley is author of Ramaphosa: The Man Who Would Be King, Jonathan Ball Publishers.

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