South Africa


Can Cyril Ramaphosa break free of his Promethean chains?

Image sources: EPA-EFE / Siphiwe Sibeko / POOL

Anthony Butler’s rich political biography of Cyril Ramaphosa is must-reading for local political junkies, foreign analysts of South Africa’s recent history and possible future, and pretty much anyone curious about the rise of Cyril Ramaphosa. It has flaws, but its massive strengths make it a great read.

In ancient Greek mythology, Prometheus was the Titan who broke the monopoly of the gods to give humankind the gift of fire (and thus knowledge). For his troubles, he was condemned by Zeus to be chained to a mountaintop and to have large carnivorous birds pluck at his liver forever and ever (or at least until Zeus finally relents from his decision, or until Hercules frees Prometheus, depending on what version of the story one reads).

Writers from Aeschylus to Shelley have crafted dramas around Prometheus’s torments and author Philip Roth even titled one of his novels about his alter ego, Zuckerman Unbound in homage to the Promethean legend.

Such is the potency of Prometheus’s travails that this story has inspired painters to produce great, inspiring, even terrifying works. As a small child, this writer was absolutely mesmerised (and more than a little bit horror-struck) by a larger than life-size painting by Flemish artists Peter Paul Rubens and Franz Snyders that hangs in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Yes, that is the very one with the steps that cinematic hero Rocky Balboa ascends in preparation for his climactic fight.)

More recently, the renowned economic historian David Landes drew on Prometheus’s story as the starting metaphor for his own magisterial history of the Industrial Revolution, entitled, The Unbound Prometheus.

Now hold on to that thought for a minute. Two weeks ago, to participate in some work meetings together with some quality time with our daughter, I was back on the Shosholoza Meyl Premier Classe (that is how they spell it) railroad to and from Cape Town. It is about a 24-hour trip each way and so I sought out a worthy, weighty tome to keep me busy when I wasn’t sleeping, eating or gazing at the countryside. And so, a 550-page biography of Cyril Ramaphosa seemed just about right for the trip.

This new volume, by University of Cape Town professor of political studies Anthony Butler, is a significantly updated version of the book he first wrote several years ago.

This revision has obviously been occasioned by Ramaphosa’s recent inauguration as South Africa’s president in his own right, after taking over in 2017 from the increasingly disgraced Jacob Zuma. (Yes, it is true, strictly speaking, that South African voters pick the party, and the majority party in Parliament then gets to pick the president, rather than through a direct selection on the national ballot. But, given the way the most recent election became so sharply presidentialised, it has become increasingly easy to speak of Cyril Ramaphosa as having been voted into office by the nation. And, of course, for many people, his party leadership and status as president already apparently led them to vote for the ANC on the national ballot, even if they simultaneously voted for other parties down at the provincial level.)

And so I opened the volume just after stepping on to the train in Park Station, en route to Cape Town, and finished it just as the train was passing through Krugersdorp on the return journey. Read every word of it. Truthfully, it is a deeply engaging and wonderfully informative read. The author has the knack of telling a compelling story with the kind of corroborative detail and testimony from others that draws the reader into the events being depicted as well as into the grander narrative being set out as the backdrop for the immediate story.

The book profiles Ramaphosa as a man already marked for leadership and greatness back as far as his high school and university days — and his close affiliation with the Black Consciousness movement as well as various student-led church bodies.

It goes through his early years in the establishment and subsequent growth of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM); his second-tier but still-vital role in the United Democratic Front (UDF); his great successes in the negotiations for both the interim and then the final non-racial constitutions; his sudden expulsion (or self-inflicted exile) from the centre ring in the new government; his subsequent business career; and then his triumphal return to politics — finally culminating in his new term as president.

For anyone familiar with recent South African developments, the close look at Ramaphosa’s student days as a nascent organising genius of high school evangelist groups and then at the University of the North (now the University of Limpopo and one of the tertiary institutions established in the apartheid era to keep all but a few black students from attending the country’s major universities) as a leader make for revealing reading. They offer fascinating insights into how Ramaphosa was learning the craft of organising others into supporting a common purpose.

But this section also highlights how a young adult Ramaphosa was also deeply influenced and encouraged by the Black Consciousness ideology that had caught fire with so many students at his university. Concurrently, it demonstrates how minimal the influence of the ANC was with black students and young intellectuals during this period in Ramaphosa’s education.

Accordingly, this places the man who would be president significantly outside of the old ANC structures and ideas — very much in keeping with those who led the student marches of the Soweto Uprising in 1976 and beyond.

In this same vein, Butler traces Ramaphosa’s engagement in the black trade union movement that grew up following the acceptance of the Wiehahn Commission’s proposals, and his undoubted achievement with the formation and growth of the NUM into a force of hundreds of thousands of members in the country’s most important foreign income earner. But it also profiles the less-than-successful industry-wide strike of 1987 that barely gained any benefits for the miners, but did teach the union leader important (even vital) lessons about the limitations and dangers of direct action and how other avenues might be better.

Along the way, Ramaphosa began to take the measure of his mining house opponents, even as he built personal bonds with such people as Rick Menell of the AngloVaal gold mining giant and Bobby Godsell of the Anglo-American mining conglomerate during always-contentious wage and workplace negotiations.

One other effort, the Urban Foundation, brought Ramaphosa and Menell further together through their membership on that body’s board of directors. The Urban Foundation was one of the white business community’s responses to the growing clamour for a fundamental change in the country’s political and economic order, but without embracing a political or social revolution.

In tandem with his career in the NUM, Butler describes how Ramaphosa was gradually moving away from his previous Black Consciousness proclivities and on to an engagement with the UDF in its role as the increasingly powerful legal body, acting significantly on behalf of a still-illegal, still-in-exile ANC.

By the time Nelson Mandela walked out of prison in 1990, Ramaphosa was in charge of the reception committee and all that implied. In the years of the negotiations with the old government and as a key person in the constitutional drafting body, Ramaphosa demonstrated the skills he had learnt by shaping fractious debate into growing consensus, and how he formed real bonds with his ostensible antagonists.

Presumably well-positioned to gain a deputy presidency position under Nelson Mandela, Ramaphosa was elbowed out by Thabo Mbeki and Ramaphosa was thereby cast out or exiled himself from the inner circle. At that point he began to build a career for himself (and thus a substantial personal fortune) in South Africa’s business world, deal-making via the newly created Nail black business-empowerment vehicle, and then on through yet other black-empowerment vehicles as he gained business experience, heavy-lifting contacts, and growing business acumen.

It is a particularly complex saga, and here Butler effectively accepts that the details of some of these deals, or Ramaphosa’s special or unique roles in them, may never be really totally clear and transparent to outsiders. Regardless of this success, by the time his decade out of politics was largely over, he had amassed a considerable fortune and his very own personal business conglomerate — Sanduka — along with his speciality cattle herds.

At this point, Butler documents how Ramaphosa re-entered South Africa’s political life with a vengeance. He moved through the upper tiers of both party and government until he was deputy president as Jacob Zuma was finally deposed — and Ramaphosa was president — but only after a ruinous decade of State Capture, graft, corruption and nepotism that cost the country vast funds diverted from the real purposes of government.

Here the narrative largely comes to an end with Ramaphosa poised to begin his own real first term. By this point, it is clear the president has become a master negotiator, an extraordinary tactician in bridging the gaps between opposing positions, and in finding ways to build personal bonds with would-be opponents and supporters alike.

What this portrait is unable to do is bring to bear many of Ramaphosa’s own thoughts on his triumphs and challenges, even if numerous longtime friends, collaborators, and even antagonists offered their views and thoughts on what shaped the prime subject’s views and actions. Unfortunately, there are too few references to the man’s own writings, speeches, or thoughts, perhaps because the president himself ultimately declined to co-operate fully with this volume’s author.

As a result, the text sometimes seems a bit more like an exciting study of an exotic species than a full-bodied study of what — and how — influences worked their magic on him. Someday, when Ramaphosa’s own papers are available, or if he agrees to full participation in a further version, we will gain more of a sense of how Ramaphosa himself believes he became the man he is.

Right at the end of this biography, on the bottom of the next-to-last page, Butler draws on US presidential historian Richard Neustadt’s famous dictum that, ultimately, the power of the presidency is “the power to persuade” rather than just to sit in some office and issue commands to cowering subordinates. The still unanswered question for South Africa’s president — and thus his nation’s people — is that in addition to his undoubted mastery of persuasion and negotiation in close, antagonistic quarters — does Ramaphosa also have the starch to take on tough, prickly questions and problems and make the hard decisions needed to come to reach the decisive solutions and policies to address them?

At this early point in his presidency, Ramaphosa has been dealt a rather bad hand.

He has a party leadership in which a significant share of it is actively working to undermine his administration. He is the recipient of a flailing economy, where the urgent need for growth is constantly being undermined by larger global trends as well as deep-seated inefficiencies, structural problems, a frequently directionless government and antagonisms between labour and business.

If Neustadt were here today, he might admit to the idea a president must be persuasive, but also decisive. It remains an open question whether Cyril Ramaphosa can bring both of those attributes in South Africa’s time of seemingly unending challenges. Will he become unbound, or will he remain chained to his mountain? DM


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