Cyril Ramaphosa delivering his closing address as the newly elected ANC President during the 54th ANC Elective Conference. Picture: MASI LOSI
Cyril Ramaphosa delivering his closing address as the newly elected ANC President during the 54th ANC Elective Conference. Picture: MASI LOSI

SA’s governing party, the African National Congress (ANC), has a new president — Cyril Ramaphosa. But who is he?

Ramaphosa is a fitting choice to take over the government, stabilise the economy, and secure the constitutional architecture that he helped to create at the end of apartheid.

But to expect more would be expecting too much. He is unlikely to veer far from the traditional economic path chosen by the ANC.

We can draw on important features of his career for some conjecture about the man.

The early days

Ramaphosa was born in Johannesburg, the industrial heartland of SA, on November 17 1952. The second of the three children of a policeman, he grew up in Soweto where he attended primary and the first years of high school. He moved on to Mphaphuli High School in Sibasa, Limpopo, were he was elected head of the Student Christian Movement soon after his arrival.

He studied law at the then University of the North (Turfloop), where he became active in the South African Students Organisation, which espoused the black consciousness ideology of Steve Biko. He became active in the University Student Christian Movement, which was steeped in the liberation theology of the black consciousness movement.

After graduating with a degree in law, Ramaphosa continued his political activism through the Black People’s Convention, for which he was jailed for six months. He went on to do his articles and joined the National Council of Trade Unions which was to form the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), with Ramaphosa as its first secretary-general. He helped to build the NUM into the largest trade union in the country, serving as its secretary-general for just more than 10 years.

Business and politics

His prominence and public stature grew even more when he was elected secretary-general of the ANC in 1991.

Under the auspices of the Convention for a Democratic SA (Codesa), he became the ANC’s lead negotiator during negotiations on a postapartheid arrangement.

Following this, he led the ANC team in drawing up a new constitution for the country. It is now considered one of the most progressive constitutions in the world.

In 1994 Ramaphosa lost the contest to become President Nelson Mandela’s deputy. Having Thabo Mbeki appointed instead was a blow, but persuaded by Mandela, Ramaphosa went into business.

For the next two decades Ramaphosa put his energies into building a large investment holding company, Shanduka, with interests in sectors ranging from mining to fast foods. The success of the group confirmed his reputation as a skilled dealmaker and negotiator.

During this 20-year period in business, Ramaphosa established deep links in the private sector in SA.

This has put him at odds with sections of the ANC which believe that the postapartheid arrangements had delivered political power, but not economic freedom. These voices have become louder under President Jacob Zuma’s presidency with calls for radical economic transformation and action to tackle white monopoly capital.

Ramaphosa will have his work cut out for him as he tries to accommodate these demands by driving a more inclusive social compact in the country while simultaneously trying to manage rampant corruption in the private and public sectors.

Road to presidency

Even during his years in business Ramaphosa remained close to the ANC, serving as a member of the national disciplinary committee.

But he made his major comeback on to the political scene at the ANC’s 2012 elective conference in Mangaung, Bloemfontein where he was elected deputy president of the ANC, to later become Deputy President of SA.

Two years before Ramaphosa was appointed deputy chairman of the state-run National Planning Commission. He presided over its diagnostic report, which set out the problems facing the country in clear terms. A plan was drawn up to provide answers to the challenges identified in the report. Known as the National Development Plan, it was tabled as a blueprint for the type of society SA could become.

The plan showed Ramaphosa’s strengths as an architect of social compacts.

Since its tabling the plan has been left to gather dust. But it remains a point of reference, and serves as a counterpoint to calls for radical economic transformation.

Ramaphosa is likely to emphasise stability – in government and the ANC. Given his history he is likely to want to stabilise the economy rather than to pursue radical interventions.

Ramaphosa has a personal interest to secure a stabilising social compact akin to the one he negotiated in 1994 after developments that have left the country economically and socially weaker. These include allegations that parts of the state have been taken over by corrupt civil servants and some private sector interests, high levels of unemployment and increasingly fractious public debates.

Not surprisingly, on the campaign trail he moulded his image on the sanctity of the rule of law and on the dictum that social stability hinges on respect for it.

The big question mark over Ramaphosa is how effective he will be as president. Although he has been the deputy president of the ANC and of the country for five years, some believe his influence has been minimal and that he has been unable to imprint his leadership on the party – or the country.

Will he be able to impose his will on those he now leads? Ramaphosa will be presiding over officials who have big personalities and have enjoyed long periods of political power. They are used to leading, not following.

Please sign in or register to comment.