Tim Cohen Senior editor: Business Day
ANC presidential hopeful Cyril Ramaphosa at the 54th ANC national elective conference held at Nasrec. Picture: MASI LOSI
ANC presidential hopeful Cyril Ramaphosa at the 54th ANC national elective conference held at Nasrec. Picture: MASI LOSI

I have a terrible feeling that everybody is going to be sharing their Cyril Ramaphosa stories pretty soon, assuming he is victorious on Monday, which at time of writing seemed possible but extremely close.

I have many Ramaphosa anecdotes, and they go back an awfully long way. But there is one outstanding memory that has never left me.

I don’t know him well. My interactions have always been as a journalist and they have been spotty, but fairly regular. They have always been thoroughly civil and, taken together, they fill me with enormous confidence about his presidency of the party and the country — assuming he wins.

The first time I saw Ramaphosa was at a deeply poignant moment — at the 1987 press conference held when, as leader of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), he had decided to call off the largest strike in SA’s history.

This was an enormous setback for the NUM, which was only four years old at the time but had managed to sign up 344,000 mineworkers, of which three-quarters were out on strike. Anglo was taking an extremely hard line; it had already fired 50,000 workers on the day Ramaphosa decided to call off the strike and was threatening to fire all strikers.

It’s difficult for people today to know how it felt to live through those days. It was a dark, horrible, wonderful time. My abiding memory is of living in constant fear, alternating with sporadic moments of overwhelming elation as the ramparts of apartheid were gradually toppled.

The strike took place in the context of dual states of emergency when the security forces had free rein to do exactly what they wanted. And they did.

 

One of Ramaphosa’s biggest problems was not external, it was internal. There was a lot of violence between strikers and nonstrikers. Since there was essentially no law, union members were free to vent their anger on one another, and the strike was exacerbating those cleavages.

The deal Ramaphosa struck was for all the workers who had been fired to be rehired and workers would get the company-mandated increase, about a quarter of what they were demanding.

I have often wondered what it must have taken to launch such a huge strike in the middle of a war zone, and then to concede after such a short time. The two things are so implacably contradictory.

If Ramaphosa was torn open by the contradiction, he didn’t show it at the press conference. He made out that this was the truly sensible, correct thing to do. He was calm, confident, easygoing and full of what had been achieved. The incredible thing was how everyone accepted the decision; the press was respectful and endorsed his responsibility, while 250,000 mineworkers went dutifully back to work the next day. It was as though he had flicked a switch. Thinking about it afterwards, five things struck me.

First, this was a man of deep tactical ability. In his decision to pull back, there was clearly an awareness of a short game and a long game. He was playing the long game, as he has since.

Second, his ability to win people over despite their better judgment was extraordinary.

His ability to shape people’s perceptions and make his views seem logical and sensible is going to be an enormous help should he take the ANC’s and the country’s highest office at such a fractious time.

His vacillating moves — into business then out of business, for example — and his innate sense of privacy are going to be difficult for people to track

Third, he had an enormous sense of responsibility and duty.

The choice for the NUM was tough, but when the chips were down, Ramaphosa opted, first and foremost, to preserve his organisation. In so doing, he won the respect not only for his union but for the union movement, and also of the political class. Later, he was the obvious person to restart the negotiations that stalled in 1992.

Fourth, I got the feeling his big weakness was that he occasionally became overwhelmed by a kind of despondency and vacillated as a result. My feeling of the miners’ strike was that he had thrown in the towel a little too soon and had failed a kind of ruthlessness test.

And yet, it is also one of his most likeable traits — that he genuinely believes a consensus solution is always possible.

I saw this again during a brief interview with him in 2016 in Davos. There had been an argument within the South African delegation about the meaning of "radical economic transformation" and businesspeople had said this was negative for the country because it suggested SA was going down the banana-republic road. They argued the toss, but eventually agreed that "radical economic transformation" was in the same ballpark as "inclusive growth". It’s not, but once again, the magic was at play.

Fifth, Ramaphosa was a profoundly unknowable person, and extremely proud of that fact. From the miners’ strike to the present, his opacity is disconcerting. He tends to treat life like a cross between poker and chess, always keeping something behind, always thinking tactically, always aware of the stakes.

I think this is going to make him a difficult leader to judge and anticipate.

His vacillating moves — into business then out of business, for example — and his innate sense of privacy are going to be difficult for people to track.

Ramaphosa’s history has been filled with contradictions, some positive, some negative. Yet he has been consistent in his desire to maintain stability and rationality. After SA’s recent history, that alone will be an enormous relief – and an enormous disappointment if he doesn’t deliver this.

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