, Cape Town, South Africa, Feb 13 – In the course of his 65 years, Cyril Ramaphosa has experienced the poverty of Soweto, jail for fighting apartheid, trade union activism, fabulous wealth — and now the ultimate prize of South African politics, the presidency itself.
He reached the goal on Thursday after forcing out Jacob Zuma, a longtime master of political survival, in a strategy that combined long-term vision, stealth and backroom skills.
That feat, say analysts, bears all the hallmarks of the bald, stocky Ramaphosa — pragmatism, patience and use of the inside track.
He was born on November 17, 1952 in Johannesburg’s Soweto township — a centre of the anti-apartheid struggle — to a police sergeant and a domestic worker.
He took up activism while studying law in the 1970s, and spent 11 months in solitary confinement. Nelson Mandela himself once described Ramaphosa as one of the most gifted leaders of the “new generation” — the young campaigners who filled the void left by their jailed elders.
After studying, Ramaphosa turned to trade unionism — one of the few legal ways of protesting against the white-minority regime.
He founded the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in 1982 which grew to have 300,000 members and led massive strikes in 1987 that shook the foundations of white rule.
When Mandela was released in 1990 after 27 years in prison for opposing apartheid, Ramaphosa was by his side and soon rose to wider prominence.
He played a key role in steering the negotiations to a peaceful transition to democracy and then led the group that drew up the country’s new constitution, famed for its pledges to justice and equality.
– Wilderness years –
Ramaphosa’s destiny seemed pre-ordained.
But in 1999, his hopes of winning the top job were dashed when he failed to clinch the nomination of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) to succeed Mandela.
True to his practical nature, Ramaphosa bowed out of politics and opted for a life in business.
He held stakes in McDonald’s and Coca-Cola’s local ventures and made millions in deals that required investors to partner with non-white shareholders.
He became one of the richest men on the continent — reaching number 42 on the Forbes list of Africa’s wealthiest people in 2015 with a net worth of $450 million (383 million euros).
Ramaphosa returned to the political fray in 2012 when he was elected to the ANC’s number two post.
Two years later, he became deputy president of the nation, but was forced into a careful balancing act.
He had both to serve Zuma — tarred by accusations of corruption and incompetence — and also deliver occasional, cautious criticism of his political boss.
Ramaphosa was never the target of any graft accusations himself — but his political ambivalence and vast wealth led to criticism.
Mmusi Maimane, leader of the main opposition Democratic Alliance party, said Ramaphosa’s acquiescence made him “at best a silent deputy president, and at worst a complicit one”.
In 2012, his image took a battering when 34 striking mine workers were killed by police at the Marikana platinum mine, operated by London-listed Lonmin, where he was then a non-executive director.
Shortly before the massacre — the worst police killing since the end of apartheid — Ramaphosa had called for a crackdown on the strikers, whom he accused of “dastardly criminal” behaviour.
– Smear campaign? –
Ramaphosa has four children with his second wife Tshepo Motsepe, a doctor, who is the sister of fellow tycoon Patrice Motsepe.
He was accused in 2017 of having affairs with several young women, which he denied.
Ramaphosa did admit to an extramarital affair but told local media that he had since disclosed the relationship to his wife.
Some saw the sudden revelations as a smear campaign by associates of Zuma who feared Ramaphosa’s rise.
But the scandal’s impact was brief. As the smell of scandal around Zuma intensified and threatened ANC’s rule in the 2019 elections, Ramaphosa made his tilt for the top job.
At an ANC conference last December, he narrowly won against Zuma’s ex-wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as party leader — the stepping stone to the nation’s presidency, which is chosen by the governing party.
Critics characterised Dlamini-Zuma as a puppet who would shield Zuma after he left office.
Eschewing a frontal attack, Ramaphosa ran his campaign on pledges to fight corruption, rebuild the economy, boost growth and create desperately-needed jobs.
“Our ability to overcome these challenges has been undermined over the last decade by a failure of leadership and misguided priorities,” he said.
“For the first time since the advent of democracy, there is a real chance that the transformation of our country may suffer significant reverses.”
– ‘Inside game’ –
In the following weeks, as Zuma dug in his heels, Ramaphosa rallied support within the ANC, sidelined Zuma’s backers and finally forced the president’s resignation.
Zuma reluctantly pronounced his exit on Wednesday.
But by becoming president, Ramphosa must now match his well-established patience and strategic skills with leadership qualities, analysts caution.
“Ramaphosa has no association with any of the corruption scandals that have plagued South Africa,” wrote his biographer Ray Hartley in “The Man Who Would Be King”.
“But the years he spent at Zuma’s side, playing the ‘inside game’ suggest he is more comfortable as a powerful insider than as a radical reformer.”