Cyril Ramaphosa, a leader’s long wait to save South Africa
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In the soft dawn light of a southern summer, in a drab conference centre on the outskirts of Johannesburg, an ebullient, dapper, and so very urbane politician broke into a deep smile — before taking to the dance floor for a euphoric jig. Cyril Ramaphosa had, as it happens, just turned 41. But he and his beaming Afrikaner opposite number from South Africa’s then white government were saluting a rather more momentous milestone: they had just secured a deal to end centuries of white minority rule.
Those distant days of November 1993 seem a fairy tale now when set against the grubby state of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress after more than two decades in power. Such was Mr Ramaphosa’s lustre then that Nelson Mandela wanted to line him up as his successor. But shortly before his inauguration in May 1994 Mandela had to steel himself for a deeply awkward career chat. He had wanted to anoint Mr Ramaphosa as his deputy in the post-apartheid order. But the party had other ideas and wanted Thabo Mbeki.
“Be patient,” friends told Mr Ramaphosa. Well, he has been, but surely not in his gloomier moments during the wilderness years could he have imagined he would wait 23 years to be on the brink of leading South Africa — as he is now after his election as the ANC’s leader.
So now, remarkably, there is a chance for a taste of that alternative narrative. After a decade of drift and dysfunction, with the economy stagnant, state corruption waxing and the divide blurring between party and state, there are many in and outside South Africa who hope this is a turning point. It just could be.
The son of a rural policeman, the 65-year-old lawyer-turned-union-leader-turned-tycoon has the credible, indeed compelling, CV and range of experience to beguile both investors and at least some of the feuding wings of the ANC. But if he is to have a crack at restoring a semblance of good governance, he will need to show that after years of understandable caution he still has the drive and ruthlessness he once had in spades.
“Nelson Mandela will be happy in his grave,” says Kuseni Dlamini, chairman of Aspen Pharmacare and a prominent member of the business elite. “[Mr Ramaphosa] has high emotional intelligence and has always been open to finding a solution that works for all parties.” But time is of the essence, he adds. Mr Ramaphosa has to shed a reputation for incrementalism and unleash reforms.
He is certainly a master of the art of strategic patience. This will stand him in good stead as he presides over a fractured party and seeks to outwit Jacob Zuma, his predecessor as ANC leader — still, in theory, national president until the next general election in 2019. Mr Zuma’s cronies have deep power bases in the party and will resist Mr Ramaphosa’s pledge to take on corruption.
His experience as a negotiator will also help. As a young lawyer from Soweto in the 1980s he wrangled with the mining houses first for the then radical idea of a union and then for a revolution in workers’ rights.
Bobby Godsell, the former chief executive of AngloGold Ashanti, was then negotiating for Anglo American. He was struck by Mr Ramaphosa’s silky rhetoric and iron will: he is “hell of a good” at carrying his argument, and his talent for “off-the-radar screen” talks showed his mastery of “the art of the possible”.