This week is Cyril Ramaphosa’s coming-out party after a lengthy absence from politics. The ANC is parading its new debutante around, having him address his first meeting with business and a mini-rally in KwaZulu-Natal. Ramaphosa was also interviewed by international news channel CNN, where he was depicted as something of a messiah returning to save South Africa. How long can Ramaphosa play second fiddle to President Jacob Zuma and what is the long-term strategy everybody assumes he has? By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
At the ANC’s 53rd national conference in Mangaung last month, Cyril Ramaphosa appeared very much like a blushing bride at her wedding – coquettish, modest and seemingly surprised by his popularity. But he was clearly the man of the moment, making a dramatic comeback to active politics after a 15-year absence and rising to the second highest post in the ruling party. His election caused much speculation about the future of his business empire and his political career path, now that he is in pole position to succeed President Jacob Zuma.
Immediately after his election, Ramaphosa released a public statement that he would review his business interests to remove any possibility of a conflict of interest due to his new powerful position in the ruling party. Business Day reported that his wealth rose by 39% to R3.1billion last year. It is not yet clear what portion of his business holdings Ramaphosa will shed owing to his new position as ANC deputy president.
In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour screened on Tuesday night, in which he was rather liberally referred to as the “undisputed champion of the anti-Apartheid struggle”, Ramaphosa sidestepped a question about the extent of his wealth. He said, however: “I am not wealthy the way you are describing it”.
“The members who elected me are fully aware of my situation. But I have been and I am a businessman. And the ANC is about change. The ANC is a political organisation that welcomes everyone,” he said. “Now I can make a contribution to that. And it is my conscience that will be driving the actions that I have to take.”
Ramaphosa’s election has drawn much attention, in South Africa and abroad, with the corporate sector welcoming his rise to power as a positive move to instil business confidence in the ANC leadership. With the ANC crippled by leadership battles over the past few years, Ramaphosa’s election as ANC deputy president is also being seen as a way to thwart another divisive presidential at the next elective conference as he stands as the heir apparent to Zuma.
With the ANC’s 101st anniversary celebrations under way in KwaZulu-Natal this week, the party is maximising on Ramaphosa’s currency and has been deploying him as the star attraction ahead of the main rally to be addressed by Zuma on Saturday. Ramaphosa has obliged by trumpeting Zuma and the newly elected leadership’s praises.
“President Zuma is now blessed with the National Executive Committee which is the crème de la crème. He has the great fortune of having around him some of the best of the best brains who are going to work with him to lead this country to achieve the goals of our revolution,” he said.
He has also attempted to allay speculation that he made a deal with the Zuma camp ahead of the Mangaung conference, which will see him take over as state president after the 2014 election. Ramaphosa told Amanpour he believed Zuma would head the ANC’s election ticket in 2014.
“He is going to be the face of our campaign and all members of the ANC are going to rally behind him… rally behind him to achieve the victory that our people want us to achieve. The ANC will emerge victorious in that election being led by President Zuma,” he said.
It might be that Ramaphosa genuinely believes this, or it could be that he is going out of his way to reassure Zuma that he has no designs on his job just yet. Zuma and Ramaphosa did not have a close working relationship in the ANC and have yet to settle into their new partnership, which was structured by Zuma’s lobbyists to outsmart the Forces of Change camp and outmanoeuvre Kgalema Motlanthe.
Ramaphosa told Amanpour the issue of him becoming president “[did] not even begin to arise” as he was focusing on his position as deputy. “Within the ANC you are chosen. You never choose yourself,” he said.
“I was minding my own business. And the people said we want you to come into this position. And I heeded that.”
Ramaphosa is clearly walking on eggshells to steer clear of controversy, but at the same time trying to show that his re-entry to the ANC leadership will lend credibility to the party. During the constitutional negotiations and as ANC secretary general in the nineties, Ramaphosa was bold and forthright – traits he would need to keep camouflaged, for now, to prevent himself from coming under attack from within the party.
Questioned about the lavish state spending on Zuma’s Nkandla residence, he deferred to the various investigations being conducted into the matter. In response to Amanpour’s question about “what went wrong with the rainbow nation”, Ramaphosa conceded that there were “massive challenges” and that “not everything is where we want it to be”.
As a signal that suppressing his candid nature would not be an easy task for him, Ramaphosa told Amanpour: “We need to re-establish the moral compass of our organisation”.
Amanpour also questioned Ramaphosa on his role in the Marikana massacre in which 34 striking Lonmin mineworkers were shot dead and 78 others injured by police. Email communication presented before the commission of inquiry investigating the massacre shows that Ramaphosa called for action to be taken against the strikers.
Speaking publicly for the first time on the email revelations, he told Amanpour that he was concerned by the loss of life in the days prior to the massacre and was trying to prevent further loss of life.
“Some of them had died in the most brutal way. They had died in what I still see as a criminal way… It was so terrible – it just begins to defy any feeling that anyone would have. And I was appealing to the authorities to take action, to make sure that we prevent further death.
“A long part of my life was spent serving mine workers. And there is just no way I could ever have said that mine workers should be killed. There is just no way. It is just defies any logic in me. I’ve served mine workers loyally and I sought to improve their lives, the condition of their employment, and that is on the record.”
Ramaphosa has offered to testify before the commission of inquiry into his role. While Amanpour did not interrogate him on the matter, the situation at the inquiry will be markedly different, particularly when he faces cross-examination from the victims’ advocates, Dumisa Ntsebeza and Dali Mpofu.
For now, though, Ramaphosa is the flavour of the week, finding his sea legs again, singing Zuma’s praises and reassuring his audiences that South Africa is ready to hit the high road now that the National Development Plan (he was deputy chairman of the National Planning Commission which drew up the plan) has been adopted formally by the ANC.
After the honeymoon period is over, though, Ramaphosa’s immediate role in the ANC leadership (and possibly in the state if Motlanthe bails out as deputy president) will have to be defined. He will need to keep his ambitions in check to prevent paranoia and suspicion from ruining his relationship with Zuma. His long-term career plan – obviously there is one, or he would not have ventured out of his comfort zone to the cutthroat arena of the ANC leadership – needs to be suppressed until Zuma is ready to hand over the reins or the ANC asks him to step in.
Ramaphosa could have been the ANC president 15 years ago, but because of internal ructions, things went horribly wrong for him. In order to prevent this happening again, he has to play a patient waiting game, not appear too eager and not try to outshine the boss.
Ramaphosa’s time is coming. And he knows it. DM
Photo by Greg Marinovich.