The Ramaphosa enigma

Jeremy Gordin says not even those who have known the President for years, know what he really believes

1. Salmon-pink paper turns Trainspotter purple

About a week ago, on April 30, a highly indignant Richard “Trainspotter” Poplak enjoined us on the Daily Maverick site to “get real” about President Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa (CR) and to stop fawning. What seemed to have triggered Poplak, besides his native good sense, was a piece written by, among others, Lionel Barber, editor of the mighty Financial Times, on April 23.

There are a few mistakes in the FT article but they’re minor. CR was born not in Soweto but in what used to be known as the Western Native Township. Referring to CR as the country’s former “vice-president” is a misnomer; we don’t do Veeps. And CR does not “run” in the mornings; like other intelligent 65-year-olds, he sticks to walking.

There was, however, one significant “mistake”: the repetition of the myth that Nelson Mandela wanted CR to succeed him. As Anthony Butler, CR’s unauthorized biographer, pointed out in the article’s comments section: “Mandela probably, almost certainly, did not want Ramaphosa to succeed him. [Mandela] made this claim only later when [Thabo] Mbeki was treating him with great disrespect.”

Other than this, “it wasn’t such a bad article,” as some have said. Maybe. But it was a PR job; an advertisement for CR; a whitewash. It was a this-newspaper-for-business-people-will-now-scratch-the-back-of-business-people’s-favourite-new-SA-politician moment. So let’s take what I trust is a more accurate look at the Buffalo.

2. February 26, 2018: the Great Cabinet Kerfuffle

At about 10.10pm on Monday, February 26, 2018, the fifth President of the Republic of South Africa, 65-year-old CR, normally smiling, ebullient, and confident, was not smiling at all. He looked shattered – there’s no other word for it. He was also 100 minutes late, having initially been scheduled to appear on the country’s television screens at 8.30pm and then 9.30pm.

CR was on air to announce his new cabinet. Ten days earlier, on February 16, in his first public address, the State-of-the-Nation address (Sona), CR had promised that he would – with an energy that would make Hercules seem effete – clean out the malodourous stables of his predecessor King Jacob Zuma.

First, CR had seemed to suggest, he would cut down the number of Zuma ministries, ministers and deputy-ministers. Former president Thabo Mbeki (June 1999-September 2008) had a cabinet of 50 ministers and deputies and former “interim” president, Kgalema Motlanthe (September 2008-May 2009), had 47. President Jacob Zuma, inaugurated in May 2009, had a cabinet of 73 when his second term ended abruptly with his resignation on February 14, 2018.

Second, it was assumed by commentators, analysts and apparently most people that CR’s statement during Sona that “This is the year in which we will turn the tide of corruption in our public institutions” meant that CR would rapidly and fearlessly expunge from cabinet the corrupt, the blatantly incompetent, and the Zuma cronies – considered by most people to be one group.

CR wouldn’t have needed to do much research. Besides the sterling work of amaBhungane and other investigators, and books such as The Republic of Gupta: A Story of State Capture by journalist Pieter-Louis Myburgh (April 2017), followed by The President's Keepers: Those keeping Zuma in power and out of prison by Jacques Pauw (October 2017), opposition parties, ANC “stalwarts”, OUTA (Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse) and even the SACP had each on numerous occasions presented a list of the cabinet, government and SOE (state-owned enterprises) officials who clearly and urgently needed to be sent to a galaxy far, far away.

Additionally, Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s unfortunately incomplete November 2016 “State of Capture” report found there indeed existed people outside the government (the Gupta family) who had conspired successfully with Zuma and other officials to achieve certain outcomes, thereby capturing the state.

CR also must have noticed the social grants debacle. Out of a total population of 56-million, some 17, 5-million South Africans – “the poor and most vulnerable” – receive monthly social grants, without which neither they nor their children would have any food on the table. But at the start of April 2017, recipients came within an inch of not receiving their grants.

No need to rehash the details of this story. In short, it emerged at the Constitutional Court that Bathabile Dlamini, Minister of Social Development, had bullied executives, failed to attend crucial meetings and, overall, had been monumentally disinterested in trying to fix the problems hampering a workable and safe distribution system for social grants. Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng said there was simply “no explanation for [Dlamini’s] incompetence” and disinterest. The point is that the episode was a slap in the face of the ANC’s major constituency, the poor and the unemployed (the latter group officially, i.e. conservatively, estimated to be 36.3 percent of the population).

But let’s return to the evening of February 26.

It was soon apparent that CR had not trimmed the size of cabinet at all. This would happen “later”, he said. CR had, however, fired – but replaced, so overall cabinet metrics were pretty much the same – 10 ministers and three deputy ministers. Of the 13, at least five were high on everyone’s Must-be-fired list.

But CR had fired neither Dlamini nor Zuma’s last finance minister, Malusi Gigaba. He also announced that his chosen deputy president would be David “DD” Mabuza. He shuffled Dlamini off to be Minister of Women, the actual work of which ministry seems mysterious, and Gigaba was sent back to the Ministry of Home Affairs.

We have met Dlamini. What about Gigaba, 46, an acclaimed popinjay with the overly-ingratiating manner of an impimpi, appointed Finance Minister when Zuma fired Pravin Gordhan in March 2017? Gigaba had been found by a court to have, when Minister of Home Affairs, facilitated the capture of a R250-million airport terminal for the Guptas. He had also been accused of facilitating the Gupta family’s seamless naturalization process and abetting the Gupta family in ripping off the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa, one of the many financially-troubled SOEs.

Mabuza, 57, formerly Premier of Mpumalanga province, has never been charged with any crime but he has been implicated in corruption, tender fraud and buying supporters at ANC branches. He has also presided over a province where corruption whistleblowers have been known to land up dead; e.g., Mbombela city (Nelspruit) speaker Jimmy Mohlala, murdered in 2009 after he spoke out against tender corruption in the construction of the city’s soccer world cup stadium. No one has ever been successfully prosecuted for Mohlala’s murder.

For various reasons, related to ANC legal challenges to the legitimacy of certain of its own delegates – and therefore the right to vote at the ANC’s December 2017 elective conference – Mabuza ended up being the proverbial kingmaker at the conference. There, the previously avowed Zuma supporter, executed a gorgeous sideways shuffle and got behind CR.

In other words, if not for Mabuza, CR would probably not have been voted in as ANC president. CR, we remember, defeated the “Zuma candidate”, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, by 2440 votes to 2261, a margin of only 179.

Mabuza’s kingmaker position at the conference applied to all voting, for all elected positions. There is little doubt that – along with two or three of his fellow provincial premiers, known as “the premier league” – Mabuza not only ensured CR would be elected, but at the same time made certain that the party’s top echelons, its 107-member National Executive Committee (NEC) and the NEC’s 20-member executive arm, the National Working Committee (NWC), were well larded with the “right” people, e.g., Ace Magashule, the new ANC Secretary General, also implicated in a number of squalid corruption matters. Remember that it was the NEC via the NWC that “recalled” Mbeki and suggested to Zuma that he resign.

Communist party senior Politburo member and Deputy Minister of Public Works, Jeremy Cronin, wrote this about the conference:

“Not everyone in the anti-Zuma/anti-Gupta camp was (or is) against the parasitic looting of public resources. Key parts of what we formerly described as the “premier league” broke ranks with the Zuma camp in favour of a Ramaphosa presidency (and their own personal advancements). They did this not on principled grounds, but because they are business-rivals of the Gupta parasitic network. They worked to secure a Ramaphosa presidential victory, but then struck deals with their fellow anti-communist, primitive accumulators in the “NDZ” [Dlamini-Zuma] camp on who would be in and who would be out of the NEC.”

This is why on February 26 CR looked shattered and was uncharacteristically tardy. Whomever he conferred with just prior to his cabinet announcement had reminded him who was responsible for his successful election. This person or persons also doubtless mentioned inter alia that Dlamini and Gigaba had to be kept aboard. The former is president of the ANC Women’s League which carries clout and special votes at elective conferences, both she and Gigaba sit on the NEC and Dlamini also sits on the NWC.

On the evening of February 26, CR was about as comfortable and free as a man with a fish hook in his throat.

3. The man who extracts fish-hooks

For convenience’s sake, I am going to distill CR’s life into seven “chapters”. My guides are Cyril Ramaphosa by Anthony Butler, Jacana (Johannesburg), 2007, its revised and updated edition (2013), and Ramaphosa: the man who would be king by Ray Hartley, Jonathan Ball Publishers (Johannesburg & Cape Town), 2017.

CR was born in 1952 in Western Native Township, Johannesburg. After finishing his schooling, CR became a political activist. He involved himself in “black consciousness” student politics at the University of the North (Turfloop) and was held in solitary confinement for 11 months in 1974. In 1976, following the Soweto unrest, he was detained again, for six months.

Second chapter: having become a law clerk at a Johannesburg firm of attorneys and obtaining a legal degree via correspondence, CR in 1982 founded, and became the General Secretary of, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). Membership grew from 6 000 in 1982 to 300 000 in 1992, giving it control of nearly half the black workforce in the mining industry and making it one of the country’s major political players. It was in these days that CR was exposed to captains of industry, including a fractious public debate in 1986 with the legendary captain of all business, Anglo American’s Harry Oppenheimer. It is from this time that stories of CR’s negotiating prowess emanate.

NUM helped to establish the Congress of South African Trade Unions, which joined forces with the United Democratic Front. CR thus took a leading role in the Mass Democratic Movement. So by 1990 – chapter three – CR was chairman of the Mandela National Reception Committee. Famously, CR stood alongside Mandela when the latter made his first speech as a free man on February 11, 1990. In July 1991 CR was elected Secretary General of the ANC.

CR was not part of the Exiles group (OR Tambo, Mbeki, Zuma) nor had he been an Islander (those incarcerated on Robben Island: Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada). He came from the UDF/MDM; and, although it has been denied, it’s clear that the Exiles group, led by Mbeki, was not going to have the power and the glory given over to a 40-year-old upstart. This was not because CR might have been perceived as a hot-headed ultra-Lefty; all the main Exiles were themselves SACP members and the influential Joe Slovo clearly took a shine to CR; it was because Mbeki, Zuma et al wanted the best seats in the house, tout court. They side-swiped CR and kept doing so.

The generally-accepted narrative tells us it was Mandela who asked CR to help finalize the country’s interim constitution. But it is well-known that CR was inserted (one senses Slovo’s presence here), or inserted himself, as chief negotiator at a moment when Mandela, Mbeki and Zuma were all out of the country. CR’s chapter four began. He became head of the ANC’s negotiating team at The Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA 1), which began in December 1991and which, despite numerous, literally bloody complications, became CODESA 2 in May 1992. These talks collapsed but bilateral negotiations between the ANC and the National Party government continued, the two key negotiators being CR and the NP’s Roelf Meyer.

The most famous story from this time is that CR and Meyer ended up one weekend on a trout farm. They went fishing and a hook became embedded in Meyer’s finger. CR’s second wife, Nomazizi Mtshotshisa, a trained nurse, tried unsuccessfully to remove it. CR then uttered the famous words: “Roelf, there’s only one way to do this” and “If you’ve never trusted an ANC person before, you’d better get ready to do so now”. Handing Meyer a bottle of whisky, from which he encouraged the Afrikaner to drink, CR wrenched the hook from Meyer’s finger with a pair of pliers. How apocryphal this story is, we do not know. (It was originally told by veteran journalist Allister Sparks.) Some have suggested that the words allegedly spoken are implausible; and on one occasion in 1995, CR seemed to deny he’d even gone fishing with Meyer. At any rate, by November 1993 the interim constitution was wrapped up and the country’s first democratic elections were held on April 27, 1994.

National mythology holds that in the immediate aftermath of the election Mandela favoured CR as his crown prince (deputy president), only to be persuaded otherwise by the “Collective”. Butler demurs; in his view, “relations between CR and Mandela were dire and CR was not the old man’s preferred successor at all; if I remember rightly, it was [only years later, when] Mbeki began humiliating Mandela, and pursuing his ‘interesting’ AIDS policy, [that] Mandela stated his alleged preference for Ramaphosa”.[1] Since then, CR himself has tried to paper over these cracks, saying decisions made about his career path were discussed openly with Mandela and others and he harboured no ill will. Maybe; but CR, the ANC Secretary General, did not attend Mandela’s inauguration on May 10, 1994.

CR’s fifth chapter began in 1996; he walked away from politics and went into business. Why? There have been numerous responses to this question; CR has said the next step in the liberation struggle at the time was black economic transformation. We may be forgiven for noting that also at the time no one in the ANC was offering him a cabinet position. CR’s business travails and successes are a long story. Suffice it to say that by the time CR returned to active politics in 2012 he was one of the country’s richest men with an estimated wealth of R6.4 billion. This wealth came from his own Shanduka Group, but also from serving on the boards of as many as 50 listed companies. Parliament’s 2014 Register of Members’ interests, showed that the former trade unionist owned 30 properties in Johannesburg and two in Cape Town.

CR made headlines in April 2012 for bidding (unsuccessfully) more than R18-million for a “special” buffalo cow and calf. CR apologized to “the people”; some had asked, via the media, why CR would do something like that while they were living in what US President Donald Trump would later delicately describe as “shitholes”. CR also explained (not at the time) that exotic game breeding was “a wonderful contribution to conservation.”

CR seems to have succeeded quite spectacularly in business. But, again, it must be noted that, when CR went into business, conglomerates and corporations were crying out for well-connected black people to put on their boards. Conglomerates were also, as Hartley noted, selling “off parts of their businesses, at a substantial discount to market value, to black investors willing to gamble on the escalating value of shareholdings and on the payment of dividends being sufficient to pay off debt”.[2] Hartley also quotes Michael Spicer, erstwhile executive director of Anglo American South Africa, who, while acknowledging that CR was a sufficiently “astute” businessman, one reason he had accumulated “a lot of wealth” was that many “things” had simply “dropped into his lap.”[3]

As a shareholder in, and as a non-executive board director of Lonmin plc, CR landed in trouble following the August 2012 Marikana massacre, where police gunned down 34 Lonmin miners and injured 78 others. During the subsequent Marikana Commission of Inquiry, it emerged that Lonmin management had solicited CR to coordinate “concomitant action” against “criminal” protesters, to which end CR had dispatched certain emails using the word “criminal”, and had phoned two ministers to try to have the strike curtailed. In fairness to CR, he did this before the shootings, when policemen and security guards had been attacked and/or murdered by strikers. At any rate, the Commission exonerated CR from any culpability for the police actions; and CR did what all honourable South Africans do, whatever they have done: he apologized profusely.

Why did CR start chapter six – return to high-level politics and stand in December 2012, with Zuma’s backing, for the ANC deputy presidency, which he won easily? At that point, Zuma and the ANC badly wanted a presentable face at the top of the party: the wheels had already started coming off and Motlanthe kept his distance from the Zuma slate. CR has said he did so because he had encountered “a flood” of “grassroots” support. As Hartley has noted[4], CR presumably also realized, given the way Zuma was going, that the time was ripe for him to claim what had been denied to him 20 years previously.

But until the end of 2017, when the 7th chapter of his life would begin, and even when campaigning for the ANC presidency, CR behaved like Brer Rabbit and the Tar-Baby. He laid low, said mostly nothing and certainly didn’t emit a peep about Zuma, just as he’d never uttered a critical word during the Mbeki period.

Sometime before 2007, CR remarked, perhaps sarcastically, to Butler that “I am an enigma, you know”.[5] Hartley has written: “Ramaphosa remains one of the best-kept secrets in South African politics, seldom offering anything of himself beyond carefully considered public statements”.[6] Both CR and Hartley appear to have it right. CR keeps himself to himself and is careful not to speak out of turn; it’s difficult to know who he is or what he believes. Butler comments: “People who have known him for many years have no idea what his position might be on central aspects of economic or foreign policy”.[7]

I recall a DM columnist, Ivo Vegter, some months ago gravely labelling CR a “hypocritical Socialist”. Well, if we start calling people names, especially with regard to being hypocritical Socialists, who, as Hamlet asked, “would escape whipping”? Certainly, however, CR is no stranger to hypocrisy. As RW Johnson noted in a recent article on Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s “passing”:

Most prominently there was Cyril Ramaphosa, who as a member of the Mandela Crisis Committee in 1989 had to look into not less than 16 murders attributed to Winnie and her Football Club. ...Ramaphosa had to swallow a great deal in order to make his funeral oration but he seemed to have no difficulty at all in ignoring a large number of unfortunate truths in order to do so. This is a warning for the future.”

Still, at least people know CR’s not in the presidency for the money. Why then? To save the ANC? To save the country? Revenge on Mbeki et al?

An acquaintance, formerly involved with trade unionism and who once later worked for a small company somewhere in CR’s empire, said to me recently: “Even if one has doubts about the boilerplate that’s trotted out about CR’s brilliant negotiation skills, and even if he might be given to Obama-like rhetoric, you must consider that, without a constituency of any sort – the unionists and Communists had long given up on him – he has now ended up winning the ultimate political game. And remember politics, especially ANC politics, is full of serious shysters and crooks. This has to bespeak, on CR’s part, a gritty determination to grasp power and a high level of strategic skills.”

To which one could counter: Or maybe he was simply in the right place at the right time and presented a better alternative for the ANC than the other one on offer?

4. “It’s the ANC, stupid”

What happened at the ANC elective conference seems obvious: Mabuza, Magashule and confrères had a little chat: Zuma was clearly a serious electoral liability; the Guptas had not only been rumbled but were unpopular – not ANC, not black, not even South African; there was a need for a limited clean-up; why not CR?

Where does that leave CR? His freedom of action is severely hampered; it might even be crippled. Whatever CR wants or intends to do (and, given his cryptic nature, no one seems to know what this might be), it would have to be ratified by the real ANC power-brokers. We saw how that worked out for him on the night February 26.

Besides which, the party’s been mired for at least the last 10 years, but of course for longer, in general looting but also – just as damaging – it runs an administration and civil service that are inefficient and incompetent.

It’s worse than that. After 24 years of ANC government, unemployment is endemic, public housing is lagging, health care and education are broken, crime remains rampant and food, fuel and electricity costs are high and climbing. As for the economy, interest rates are crippling, the currency’s stumbling along, ratings agencies keep on downgrading the country, the prospects for overseas investment are very low and so therefore are the prospects for economic growth – and punting land expropriation without compensation, which CR finds himself having to do because it was an ANC conference resolution, is not going to help, whatever sophistical speeches he makes.

The big Ramaphosa selling-point, for the country and the party, was (and is) his ability to get business to buy in, to generate confidence in the country and get the place onto a growth trajectory – hence his recent announcement that he is deploying certain “lions” to lure domestic and international investors‚ aiming to raise $100-billion for South Africa in the next five years. (Interestingly, CR had to curtail his recent trip to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting because of the apparent grass-roots outbreak against one of the main members of the Premier league, Supra Mahumapelo.) But debate and doubt about the security of property rights effectively puts all those things on hold.

With no real constituency (other than the business community – but they are not necessarily the power-brokers), held crushingly by his proverbials, will the enigmatic unionist-turned-capitalist be a new broom, merely a cleaner-than-Zuma broom, or no broom at all?

Certainly he’ll be a cleaner one than Zuma. But whether he’ll actually be able to shift any of the serious dirt out of the way and do some serious cleaning up – I, like the proverbial canny Scotsman and our own Trainspotter, have my doubts.


[1] Private email, Butler to Gordin, March 6, 2018.

[2] Hartley, 78.

[3] Ibid. 97-8.

[4] Ibid. 127.

[5] Butler, x.

[6] Hartley, 3.

[7] Butler, 395.