Cyril Ramaphosa, leader of the African National Congress and the man poised to succeed Jacob Zuma as president of South Africa, came to international attention when he held the microphone for Nelson Mandela as he made his first public remarks after his release from prison in 1990.
Now that he is about to have the microphone to himself, Mr Ramaphosa is determined to refocus the country’s attention on the values espoused by Mandela: unity, equality and racial reconciliation.
Other than Mandela himself, nobody is more closely identified with South Africa’s peaceful transition from apartheid. Mr Ramaphosa cut his teeth in the labour movement and, in 1982, he founded the National Union of Mineworkers, building it into the biggest trade union in the country. Under his leadership, the NUM not only fought for improved working conditions but openly defied the government by agitating for the dismantling of apartheid.
Mr Ramaphosa became a key player in the internal resistance against the regime, later joining the reception committee for Mandela’s release.
When President F W de Klerk made his bombshell speech in parliament in 1990, removing the ban on opposition groups, nobody was more surprised by such a development than the ANC. They were caught off-guard and were unprepared for negotiating with the regime.
But help was at hand. Mr Ramaphosa was elected secretary-general at the first ANC conference to be held inside South Africa in more than 30 years. He became the organisation’s point man in the negotiations, which led to a peaceful settlement. Thereafter, he presided over the body that drafted the country’s post-apartheid constitution.
Mandela thought Mr Ramaphosa had done enough to earn the right to be his deputy and would therefore be in pole position to succeed him as president. He was relatively young — born in 1952. Mandela would be passing the torch to the next generation. Also, given the country’s ethnic sensitivities, Mandela, from the Xhosa tribe, didn’t think it was politically prudent to be succeeded by Thabo Mbeki, another Xhosa. Mr Ramaphosa comes from one of the smaller ethnic groups. But the ANC ignored Mandela and chose Mr Mbeki instead. Mr Ramaphosa licked his wounds and went into business, where he subsequently made a great deal of money.
As president, Mr Mbeki pursued policies that tended to reignite the racial tensions that Mandela had worked hard to extinguish. Mr Zuma, his successor, lacks solid ideological inclinations. But towards the end of his tenure, as protests and demonstrations against government corruption have escalated, he has taken a leaf from the playbook of Robert Mugabe in neighbouring Zimbabwe. He rails against what he calls “white monopoly capital” and has threatened to expropriate land without compensation.
Mr Ramaphosa is cut from different cloth. He’s more a pretender to Mandela’s mantle than a successor to Messrs Mbeki or Zuma. On Sunday he launched a year-long celebration of the centenary of Mandela’s birth, which should give him ample opportunity to lay claim to the virtues and values of his idol.
Mr Ramaphosa is probably better prepared to be president than any of his predecessors were. His business background has given him a deeper appreciation of the workings of a modern economy. But he has his work cut out: Mr Zuma will leave behind what can only be described as a shambles.
The economy is in a parlous state. In November, S&P downgraded local South African debt to junk status. The perennial problems of crime and unemployment have worsened. Predicted economic growth of 1.1 per cent this year will not make much of a dent in unemployment, which currently stands at just under 27 per cent.
The truly defining feature of the Zuma era, however, is rampant corruption or “state capture” in which, as anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International puts it, “powerful individuals, institutions, companies or groups . . . use corruption to shape a nation’s policies, legal environment and economy to benefit their own private interests”.
Mr Ramaphosa’s elevation has lifted the national mood. Many hope that the stability and coherent policymaking that were absent under Mr Zuma will return. Business confidence is up and the rand has strengthened. But removing Mr Zuma is only the beginning. His cronies in the cabinet and other state institutions will also have to go if South Africa is to recover from its nightmare.
The writer is a former editor of the Financial Mail in Johannesburg