Cyril Ramaphosa and the story of the frogs in the water
In recently published memoirs, one of Cyril Ramaphosa's main opponents pays generous tribute to his character and negotiating skills during the talks leading up to the new South African constitution and the election in 1994.
Dr Mario Oriani-Ambrosini, who died in 2014, was a constitutional lawyer who became an MP. He was also a key adviser to Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi both during the negotiations and afterwards when the latter was minister of home affairs in the governments of national unity. His memoirs – the Prince and I: A South African Institutional Odyssey – are published this year by his estate.
According to the memoirs, Mr Ramaphosa, "stood head and shoulders above his colleagues" in the African National Congress (ANC) as well as above the National Party's negotiators. He was a "born leader" and a "straight shooter". Nor did he ever lie or "misrepresent anything".
What then are we to make of this paragraph in Dr Oriani-Ambrosini's intriguing memoirs?
"In his brutal honesty, Ramaphosa told me of the ANC's 25-year strategy to deal with the whites: it would be like boiling a frog alive, which is done by raising the temperature very slowly. Being cold-blooded, the frog does not notice the slow temperature increase, but if the temperature is raised suddenly, the frog will jump out of the water. He meant that the black majority would pass laws transferring wealth, land, and economic power from white to black slowly and incrementally, until the whites lost all they had gained in South Africa, but without taking too much from them at any given time to cause them to rebel or fight."
Since then Mr Ramaphosa has had a great deal else to say. He said recently that "radical economic transformation" required policies with an "over-riding focus on the creation of jobs". Policies that "do not create jobs – or that threaten jobs – must be reviewed and revised." This thinking is incompatible with expropriation of all white "wealth, land, and economic power".
Mr Ramaphosa recently told the South African Communist Party (SACP) that "far higher levels of fixed investment" were necessary to achieve growth and create employment on a massive scale. Such investment would not be forthcoming in the context of the mass expropriation of white property of which he spoke to Dr Oriani-Ambrosini. Investors are already extremely wary.
Mr Ramaphosa knows this. Even so, he has recently endorsed the ANC's policy of bringing about a national democratic revolution – although these remarks are routinely ignored by newspapers and nearly all on-line commentators. Either they do not take them seriously, or they do not wish to alert the frogs. Mr Ramaphosa of course benefits from this voluntary censorship.
His remarks all those many years ago help to explain something the mining industry does not understand: why, despite its achievements in handing over equity to black economic empowerment partners, the mining minister keeps on demanding more.
Although his language was lurid, what Mr Ramaphosa told Dr Oriani-Ambrosini is in line with the "strategy and tactics" documents the ANC and its SACP allies publish from time to time on the national democratic revolution. Implementation does not involve a "big-bang" approach, because this would frighten the horses, or alert the frogs. An incremental approach is likely to be more successful. Move forward where you can, stage a tactical retreat if you provoke too much opposition, and then press forward when the time is more auspicious.
To what extent Mr Ramaphosa is still committed to what he said in his speech about white people and frogs is not clear. As a trade unionist before he went into politics he had to adopt a pragmatic approach. If he ever became president of the ANC and of the country, would pragmatism supplant revolutionary ideology?
The answers can only be guesswork. Mr Ramaphosa's main attraction at this stage is that his political rivals for the top job are uninspiring, if not worse. This alone will secure him media and business support, irrespective of whether he is a revolutionary or a reformer.
* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom.