Could Cyril Ramaphosa Be the Best Leader South Africa Has Not Yet Had?

Published: January 23, 2013
By the time I met Cyril Ramaphosa in 1992, he was Nelson Mandela’s choreographer at the negotiations that would eventually bring three centuries of white dominion to a thrilling and relatively peaceful end. Every day a polyglot, multiparty assembly — of former prisoners and their onetime oppressors, Communists and Bantustan autocrats and Afrikaner nationalists and union militants — mingled in a conference center outside Johannesburg to discuss what would be, in effect, the terms of surrender.
At times the endeavor seemed to shudder with the prospect of failure, even civil war — most ominously when two white supremacists gunned down a charismatic young Communist leader in his driveway. Another day a group of Afrikaner bitter-enders drove an armored truck through the plate-glass front of the conference building. (It is a little eerie now to recall that the venue was called the World Trade Center.)
Mandela provided the aura, the moral authority. Ramaphosa, then secretary general of the anti-apartheid alliance, the African National Congress, was the business end. Big, round-faced, grinning through a peppercorn beard, a charming manipulator in multiple languages, he was adept at both creating tension and defusing it, at threatening to send his constituents on a campaign of “rolling mass action” and then easing the pin back into the grenade. Janet Love, a member of Ramaphosa’s negotiating team who now runs a human rights law center in Johannesburg, reminded me recently how he resolved the conundrum that arises when you have a constellation of 19 parties and alliances in which some matter more than others — namely: How do you know when something should be regarded as decided? Ramaphosa came up with the concept of “sufficient consensus.” It sounds absurdly vague, but it was a polite way of saying that when the white National Party and the A.N.C. came to terms, everyone else, as Ramaphosa explained later to a reporter, “can get stuffed.”

Pieter Hugo for The New York Times

Cyril Ramaphosa, who was elected by the African National Congress in December to be the deputy president of South Africa.

When the deal was done, he was the obvious choice — in fact, he was Mandela’s choice — to be the first deputy, next in line for the presidency. But the party elders, especially the powerful faction that spent the struggle in exile, were wary of Ramaphosa, who had worked the home front as a union organizer and came late to the A.N.C.
So on my visit to South Africa this past December, I met a new Cyril Ramaphosa: Cyril the tycoon, at the office of his holding company, Shanduka Group, a sleek sandstone-colored complex in Johannesburg’s most upscale neighborhood. On the Forbes list of the richest Africans, Ramaphosa is No. 21. His worth is estimated at $675 million — Russian oligarch money, astounding wealth in a country where about 40 percent of the population survives on less than $2 a day. How he became so rich is a story we’ll get to, but I was there because of reports that he was considering a return to politics.
Sure enough, a week after our conversation, the governing African National Congress summoned him back to the national cause, voting him the party’s deputy president by a landslide. The election put Ramaphosa, now 60, back on the track Mandela had in mind for him 18 years ago. At last, we may find out whether he is, as many South Africans have long believed, the best president South Africa has not yet had.
To someone visiting after a long absence, South Africa feels both prosperous and precarious. The malls of the tonier neighborhoods are filled with shoppers of all races. The airports and sports arenas of Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban are world-caliber. And there is a class of very rich black capitalists like Ramaphosa. But the wealth does not completely hide a malaise, born of stubborn inequality and conspicuous corruption and discharged in bursts of violent discontent.
The most unsettling recent reminder that South African liberation is far from fully delivered was a wildcat strike in August that ended with the massacre of platinum miners in a town called Marikana. The mine killings entangled Ramaphosa in a controversy that, in America, would surely have the suffix “gate” attached to it. He is a shareholder and board member of the platinum company whose mine was the scene of the killings. Indeed, his portfolio is stuffed with investments in the mining industries — gold, diamonds, coal and platinum. In the days of white rule, Ramaphosa organized South Africa’s powerful black mineworkers’ union. So the industries that made him a champion of the liberation struggle have, more recently, made him a very wealthy man and caused some to question where his loyalties lie. He is now trying, with characteristic political agility, to turn a tragedy that looked at first to be a liability into an asset — a spur to action for a democracy in dire need of a second wind.

Trevor Samson/AFP/Getty Images

Cyril Ramaphosa, right, with James Motlatsi, president of the mineworkers’ union, during a strike in 1987.

“What Marikana gives us is an opportunity — it has come at great cost — to actually start afresh,” he told me. “Marikana is a huge wake-up call.” And not just for Cyril Ramaphosa.
What happened at Marikana in August is not uncommon in South Africa: a strike for better pay, unsupported by the union, erupting into days of angry rampage.
Lonmin, the multinational that owns the embattled mine, is a financially troubled company based in London and temporarily lacking a chief executive. Ramaphosa’s holding company acquired 9 percent of Lonmin’s South African subsidiary in 2010, and when the strike became ugly, the feckless management turned to Ramaphosa — a man who knows miners, an A.N.C. insider — for counsel. E-mails the company handed over to a continuing official inquiry describe Ramaphosa pleading with his contacts in government, the union, the A.N.C. and the mining industry to wake up, pay attention, stop the bloodshed.
By Aug. 15, when Ramaphosa vented his frustration to the chief commercial officer of Lonmin, 10 people had been killed — two of them methodically hacked to death — in the battles among strikers, nonstrikers, local union officials and mine security guards. The sense of menace was growing, yet the company was in disarray, and the police still kept their distance.
“The terrible events that have unfolded cannot be described as a labor dispute,” Ramaphosa wrote. “They are plainly dastardly criminal and must be characterized as such. In line with this characterization, there needs to be concomitant action to address this situation.”
The following day, the police arrived in paramilitary formation. Scattered by tear-gas grenades, rubber bullets and water cannons, the angry miners — armed with traditional spears and machetes and amped up on potions they believed rendered them invulnerable to bullets — rushed into an area boxed off by police armor and spools of razor wire. Thirty-four people were mowed down by a barrage of automatic-rifle fire. You can watch the fusillade and survey the bullet-riddled corpses on YouTube.

Juda Ngwenya/Reuters

Ramaphosa with Nelson Mandela in 1993.

In a country that measures its history in massacres — Sharpeville, Soweto, Boipatong — Marikana was fresh infamy.
Ramaphosa’s political enemies, foremost among them Julius Malema, an opportunistic young firebrand who was expelled from the A.N.C. for sowing discord — a decision upheld by an appeals committee led by Ramaphosa — portrayed those e-mailed pleas for order as an incitement to police murder. A massacre was pretty clearly not what Ramaphosa meant by the starchy lawyer phrase “concomitant action,” and the accusation did not find many takers in the ruling party. Until our interview in December, Ramaphosa was noticeably silent on the massacre, except to say that he would testify at the investigation and to announce, through his company, that he would contribute to the burial costs of those killed, a gesture that struck some as suggestive of a guilty conscience rather than noblesse oblige.
The larger story, though, is not how the miners died but how they lived. One urgent lesson of Marikana is that democracy has done scandalously little to reform South Africa’s most important industry.
When I interviewed him in December, as rumors of his impending return to politics were growing, Ramaphosa said it still offended him to visit mine operations, now as a shareholder, and see electric lines running high past the villages and shantytowns to power the mine, which glows “like an island of light, all the villages around it dark.” It irks him to see the pipes that carry water from dam to ore-washing, past villages with no sanitation. But as a minority shareholder, he insisted, all he can do is raise a voice for reform, and the companies are slow to respond.
“Apartheid was baked hard in the mining industry, because that’s where it originated,” he said.
I rode up to Marikana with Greg Marinovich, my go-to photographer and guide when I was based in Johannesburg 20 years ago, who spent many weeks documenting the massacre. If you walk the scene, even months later, and note the bits of yellow paint peeling off the reddish rocks where forensic teams marked the fallen, it makes you wonder whether some of the strikers may have been hunted down and killed in retreat. The markings show a scattering of bodies well beyond the sightlines of the initial confrontation; one body lay wedged in the gap between two boulders.
“How do you shoot someone in that space?” Greg asked. “Maybe from overhead? Or maybe he crawled in there and bled out. But it looks like an execution at close range.”
Someone had planted a shrine of 36 white crosses — 34 for the fallen and 2 for the parents who, the story goes, died of heart attacks when they learned that their sons were gunned down.
After that somber tour, we wandered the alleyways of derelict shacks that spread out from the fenced mine compounds where the towering gray ore conveyors and ventilator shafts are adorned with the slogan “Lonmin Cares.”

Rex Features, via Associated Press

The killing of striking miners in August has business and political implications for Ramaphosa.

The platinum belt, like the other mining zones, depends on a migrant-labor system little changed since the apartheid days. We found Jackson Majiki, 32 years old and a few beers into a Saturday bender, sitting on a plastic milk crate in his powerless, waterless 10-by-13-foot shed. Like most miners, Majiki comes from the Eastern Cape, 600 miles away, where his wife, three children, mother and four brothers live on his salary. With the pay hike Lonmin gave to buy peace, he makes about $800 for 27 long shifts a month, deep in the tunnels, manipulating a drill about the size of a jousting lance. His attitude toward the bosses, the mineworkers’ union, the A.N.C. and Ramaphosa (“a serpent in the grass”) could be politely summed up as disgust.
Under apartheid, mineworkers lived in grim hostels — often bunked like bottles in a wine rack, with no pastimes but alcohol, pot and hookers. One of Ramaphosa’s proudest victories as a union leader was to free workers from those barracks. Workers were paid “living-out allowances” to rent civilized accommodations and let their families join them. But the allowances became a case study in unintended consequences. Rather than rent decent housing, most workers treated the allowances as a pay supplement. They moved from the hostels into cheap shacks and sent a little extra home or used the rest to defray the costs of a girlfriend or an entire second family in the mine town. Jackson Majiki pays $30 a month for his shed, furnished with little but a filthy mattress, and fetches his water from a tap half a mile away along byways that flow with sewage when it rains. He feels trapped in a pestilent existence.
The local National Union of Mineworkers stewards, meanwhile, who were supposed to represent the drillers’ interests, negotiated sweeter deals for themselves — full-time, aboveground desk work, cars, a say in subcontracting of catering and laundry services (and a share in the kickbacks). “The National Union of Management,” Majiki called the co-opted local.
There are scores of towns like Marikana across South Africa. All it takes to make a massacre in such a place is to add a militarized national police force that is led by political cronies and untrained in the subtler forms of crime fighting. They don’t do crowd control. They do shock and awe, or panic and slaughter.
Ramaphosa argues that the killings at Marikana should provide the political spark for a wholesale restructuring of the mining industry; a restoration of the unions as genuine worker representatives; and a partnership between the mine companies, the national government and the inert municipal authorities to set up normal, sustainable communities. For starters, he suggests that miners work shorter cycles with more trips home and that hostels be restored but made livable — the sort of changes, he says, that have worked reasonably well in Australia’s mines.
“Is that possible?” he mused. “I think it is, and we should begin to experiment on it as quickly as possible, if we are going to restore the legitimacy of mining in the minds and hearts of our people.”
Beyond mining, Ramaphosa is an author of an epic new 20-year “national development plan,” drafted for the government by a committee of businessmen and technocrats and led by a widely respected former finance minister, Trevor Manuel. Like most such plans, it is long on promises and aspirations — “eliminating” poverty by 2030; narrowing inequality; providing universal health insurance; professionalizing the police; and instituting a wholesale reform of public education — mostly to be paid for painlessly, by tripling economic growth and recapturing the spoils of corruption, in a happy collaboration of state and market. Delivering even a substantial fraction of its ambitions will entail pulling hundreds of levers with an extraordinary dexterity that has so far eluded South Africa’s rulers.
“Cyril,” says Anthony Butler, a professor of public policy at the University of Cape Town who has written a very good biography of Ramaphosa, “is the Forrest Gump of South African political history.” By which Butler means that Ramaphosa has been present in the foreground of virtually every important moment in the modern history of his country.
He was born in 1952 in the Western Native Township, a multiethnic settlement for “non-Europeans” near Johannesburg, the son of mission-schooled, doting and ambitious parents — a police sergeant and a mother who did domestic work and ran a small liquor business on the side. When he was 10, the family was forcibly relocated from the relatively happy, diverse township to a bleak neighborhood in the booming black metropolis of Soweto as part of the government’s relentless experiment in retribalizing the black population. Being of the northern Venda people, who lacked status in Soweto, the Ramaphosas were deposited with Venda neighbors on a block bordering the trash dump.

Stephane De Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images

Jacob Zuma, the embattled president of South Africa, in December.

As a young man, Ramaphosa, like Mandela and many others, was drawn toward the Black Consciousness Movement, whose gospel was black self-sufficiency and whose most famous martyr was Steve Biko. In high school, Cyril joined the B.C.M.-oriented Student Christian Movement, and his preaching and organizing skills ultimately made him the national chairman. He enrolled in law studies at a segregated university in the north, but he was arrested for leading a student protest. Without the formality of a trial, he served 11 months in solitary confinement in a Pretoria prison. (Mandela, meanwhile, was in his 10th year of captivity on Robben Island.)
In 1976, Soweto students mounted huge protests that the police put down with extraordinary, chaotic brutality, followed by the arrests of anyone viewed with suspicion. Ramaphosa was again dragged into police headquarters: no trial, another six months of solitary in John Vorster Square, the infamous police-torture site in Johannesburg.
Like Mandela and many others, he grew disillusioned with the intellectual, almost antipolitical thrust of black consciousness and gravitated toward more of a pragmatic outlook. He took a clerking job with a small-time lawyer and looked for an outlet for his political talents.
At that time South Africa was governed by Afrikaner nationalists, but much of industry — especially the big mining houses, which pretty much built modern South Africa — was run by dynasties, like the Oppenheimers and the Menells, that favored more liberal treatment of the black majority. They argued that prosperity required a stable, better-trained black work force and a black middle class of consumers. They hoped, too, that a policy of more humane engagement would undermine the campaigns of economic sanctions and disinvestment brewing in Europe and the United States. Years later many of these same industrialists foresaw the twilight of white rule and helped grease the negotiations that ended apartheid, in the hope of retaining influence after liberation. But for now it was about offering blacks a little share of the good life, not actual power.
One outgrowth of these progressive urges was the Urban Foundation, started by mining titans like the Menell family, owners of the Anglovaal gold house. The foundation invited influential or promising blacks to join in worthy projects for the betterment of African communities. And that is how Ramaphosa acquired an important patron. Clive Menell, the head of the gold-mining conglomerate, recruited him into the Urban Foundation, helped him complete the legal studies interrupted by prison and gave him a measure of credibility with the people who held the real power in South Africa. Clive’s son and heir, Rick Menell, became and remains a close friend.
The Urban Foundation taught him useful skills for dealing with powerful people and gave him an appreciation of business that was not universal in the anti-apartheid alliance; but helping white do-gooders embellish the status quo did not hold his interest for long. He took a job as legal counsel to a labor group and soon was embarked on an effort to organize the country’s biggest and most impenetrable black work force: the miners.
Black labor unions boomed in the ’80s, tolerated by employers who were weary of violent wildcat strikes and hungry for skilled labor. The owners also calculated that with a union’s cooperation, they could bring down costs by training blacks for jobs held by well-organized and higher-paid white workers. But the mineworkers — migratory, scattered far and wide and encamped in company hostels policed by anti-union Afrikaner managers — proved inaccessible. At least two major, clandestine campaigns to enroll bargaining units in the mining industry failed miserably.
Ramaphosa, who had met and studied many of the mining moguls, dispensed with the furtive approach and basically talked his way in the front door. He presented himself as the reasonable alternative to violent labor turbulence, unpredictable demands and, by the way, high-priced white labor. The National Union of Mineworkers had 14,000 members at its founding congress and one full-time employee — Cyril Ramaphosa, the secretary general, age 30. Less than four years later, the union had enrolled 344,000 members, and the mine owners had realized, as Butler’s biography puts it, that the N.U.M. “was not the sweetheart union it had made itself out to be.”
While his most important partner, James Motlatsi, a tough and shrewd former mineworker from Lesotho, managed the fractious rank and file, Ramaphosa worked the owners. He used bargaining-table dramatics and back-channel dealing, cool reasoning and threats, oratory and his familiarity with the thinking of white businessmen. Over time N.U.M. improved pay and, more important, won pensions, eased the pitiless working conditions, broke the color barrier that kept blacks from the better jobs and forged a formidable organization.
In 1987, with the union at peak strength and gold companies’ economic fortunes in decline, Ramaphosa decided he was ready to go for broke. The strike, enforced with considerable violence, involved more than 70 percent of the mining work force and lasted an unprecedented 21 days. And it was, in the immediate outcome, a crushing defeat. The mine companies responded with large-scale dismissals and lockouts, slashing payrolls and diminishing the power of the union. Ramaphosa consoled himself that the union survived to rebuild. How much good that subsequently did the mineworkers is debatable, but the power of the labor unions, annexed to the liberation struggle, would be a formidable contributor to ending white rule.
When an interim constitution emerged from the World Trade Center negotiations and the first free elections were scheduled for 1994, there was a fierce jostling for position, especially between those who spent the apartheid years in exile — promoting sanctions, raising money and fumbling with romantic notions of armed struggle — and the so-called inziles like Ramaphosa, who had worked the home front. Ramaphosa had brought the miners’ muscle into a new Congress of South African Trade Unions, which unified labor and reoriented the unions from a collective-bargaining operation to a crusade for social change. He had joined the A.N.C. and moved swiftly up to the presiding role of secretary general. When Mandela was freed from prison and made his first address to an ecstatic crowd and a curious world, Ramaphosa was the one holding a microphone to the great man’s lips.
According to several people who enjoyed Mandela’s confidence, Ramaphosa was his top choice to be the first deputy president and the presumptive heir when Mandela would retire in 1999. Mandela came to trust and admire the man, for reasons that were obvious to all of us who watched him in action. And Mandela was not above playing ethnic politics. One complaint about the A.N.C. was that it seemed top-heavy with Mandela’s fellow Xhosas, who populated the Eastern Cape region (the A.N.C. was sometimes called the Xhosa Nostra). Ramaphosa, as a Venda, would contribute a light gloss of diversity.
But Ramaphosa was not part of the old-boy network that ran the A.N.C.’s affairs from Lusaka, Zambia. And because his work inside the country entailed unavoidable dealings with the enemy, he did not possess what Anthony Butler nicely describes as the “purity of exile disengagement.” So Mandela let himself be overruled. Thabo Mbeki, the peripatetic exile and protégé of the A.N.C. president, Oliver Tambo, got the role of deputy and successor. Several months into his presidency, Mandela let me spend a day observing him at work, and I asked why he had accepted Mbeki. His answer was evasive and resigned. Ramaphosa, he finally said, was 10 years younger than Mbeki. He would have his chance.
Mandela offered Ramaphosa the job of foreign minister (which you’d think would have been perfect for the globe-trotting Mbeki). He declined. With his friend Rick Menell, the mining executive, he adjourned to a trout stream to fish and sulk. As Menell recalls it, there was on that occasion some discussion that Ramaphosa “would be deployed out of politics into business and become a role model in another sector.” The business option, in other words, was viewed as the next arena of struggle. First Ramaphosa spent two years overseeing the writing of a permanent constitution, and then — with a sense of mission and with Mandela’s blessing — he was “deployed.”
Ever since, as Mandela’s successors have devolved from bad to worse, a favorite parlor game (especially but not exclusively in white liberal parlors) has been fantasizing about the more competent, less corrupt South Africa that might have flourished under President Ramaphosa.
In addition to mining stocks, Ramaphosa’s holding company owns all of South Africa’s 179 McDonald’s restaurants and pieces of everything from Coca-Cola distribution to solar energy, from banking to the largest mobile-telephone network. He is on so many corporate boards and committees that Trevor Manuel, who worked with him on the new national development plan, said e-mails from Ramaphosa routinely arrive at 3 in the morning. His wife is the sister of an even bigger tycoon — Patrice Motsepe, No. 8 on the Forbes list — making Ramaphosa’s membership in the black capitalist class virtually dynastic. (He has four children, including one by his first wife. The oldest son has gone into banking; his other son and two daughters are students.)
Unlike some of the country’s more ostentatious nouveau riche, he guards his privacy, but he likes the good life — fly-fishing and the ultimate Afrikaner gentleman pastime, breeding exotic wildlife on his sprawling ranch in the north. (He got a rare and uncourted dose of publicity recently when he showed up at a livestock auction and bid $2 million for a prize buffalo cow. Ramaphosa saw it as an investment — “the same as going to buy a plant that will produce hamburgers,” he told me. Besides, he was outbid. But political rivals scoffed that the man had obviously lost touch with the masses. He apologized for his display of insensitivity, and the rumbling faded.)
For most of the past few centuries, there were two prevalent methods of enrichment in Africa: colonial plunder and indigenous kleptocracy. South Africa is no stranger to either method, but Ramaphosa’s wealth derived from another source.
As part of the grand bargain by which whites relinquished their political monopoly, the new constitution promised an array of measures to introduce blacks into the landowning, goods-producing, profit-sharing market economy. Unlike some other newly liberated countries, which nationalized industries and confiscated productive lands and often drove their national economies into ruin, South Africa was determined to do things more carefully, more gradually.
Some white industrialists, especially in mining, were savvy enough to get into the good graces of the African National Congress early. The tenuously collegial relationship continued after liberation. The terms of redistribution were carefully negotiated to avoid sabotaging Africa’s healthiest economy. Over time, there would be affirmative action in hiring and promotions, set-asides of government contracts for minority suppliers. And to assure that blacks were not confined to the lesser tributaries of the economy, there would be B.E.E. ­ — Black Economic Empowerment — to introduce the previously dispossessed into the ownership class.
In the mining sector, the industry and the government agreed that by 2014 a quarter or more of the value of each company would be in black hands. Some creative financing was typically required. Or as the acerbic political economist Moeletsi Mbeki, a critic of the system (and brother of the former president), put it: “financial razzmatazz.” Ramaphosa set up his holding company — “shanduka” is the Venda word for “change” — in 2001 and began acquiring shares in ways that were pretty typical. Sometimes Shanduka’s acquisitions were financed by banks on the bet that the loans would be repaid out of dividends or rising stock values. Sometimes Shanduka borrowed the money directly from the company whose shares it was acquiring.
“I sell you 25 percent of my mine,” explained Rick Menell, who has been a party to several empowerment deals. “I know you’ve got no money. I’m going to lend you the money to pay me. And you’re going to pay me back out of your share of the profits. Oh, and I give you a preferred dividend, because I know you need a little money to live on.”
If the deals were generally structured to lay the risk on the majority white shareholders, well, this was regarded as both fair payback for centuries of oppression and, not incidentally, a way of keeping the lines to government open. Because, not surprisingly, the most prosperous new black owners — and especially the core group that came to be known as “the usual suspects,” including Ramaphosa — maintained close ties to the A.N.C. government and contributed financially to the party’s coffers. Throughout his time in the private sector, Ramaphosa has remained on the party’s national executive committee and has been the chairman of influential working groups — including the one that devised the rules of black economic empowerment.
The theory was that newly empowered black capitalists would make it their responsibility to pass their good fortune down to the workers and new business acumen down to a next generation of black startups. As Ramaphosa conceded when we talked last month, not enough trickled down. What did trickle down tended to be in the form of charity, not new business development. Shanduka, for instance, has a pair of philanthropic foundations, including an adopt-a-school program that invests money and hands-on expertise in remedies for the country’s abysmal public-school system. The work is desperately needed and praiseworthy; and Ramaphosa told me Shanduka has floated an ambitious proposal to scale it up, taking on 450 schools in the Free State province in a kind of South African Race to the Top.
But it was not until 2009 that Ramaphosa began a concentrated effort to “incubate” small and medium black businesses by giving them seed money, training and mentors. There are currently 73 new entrepreneurs in the Shanduka program — in construction, financial services and other businesses. “It’s small,” he said, “but it is a very good example of what can be done on a broader scale.” That it has taken so long, he said, is the fault of a white-ruled system that starved black schools, forbade black land ownership and outlawed almost any business more ambitious than a township bodega. Blacks, under apartheid, existed to sell their labor — cheap.
“Could it have moved quicker in 18 years?” Ramaphosa asked. “My answer is no. Our expectations were far too high. To get education to sink deep into the minds of a nation takes a generation and more.”
“Your country has had 200 years of democracy,” he added. “We’re teenagers. We’re still growing up.”
To its fiercest critics, the black economic-empowerment program is little more than a payoff by the apartheid capitalist class — a way to buy peace with the new party in power while continuing the same rapacious practices of the apartheid era. Moeletsi Mbeki charges that black empowerment “strikes a fatal blow against the emergence of black entrepreneurship by creating a small class of unproductive but wealthy black crony capitalists.” Ramaphosa naturally considers that judgment far too harsh. But there is at least a little truth in it.
What is now taking shape, perhaps belatedly, is a national consensus that the incremental redistribution of the wealth was not enough, that the country has neglected to build the entrepreneurial environment that generates a rising tide of small and medium black businesses.
A national fever of anxious self-examination, beyond the baseline angst that is endemic to South Africa, has been inflamed by the discontents manifested at Marikana and by a conspicuous rise in corruption. (While I was in South Africa last month, Transparency International, which rates countries based on an index of corruption, downgraded the country to the 69th most-honest place to do business. It had been 64th.) Economists and businessmen now talk of South Africa ceding its status as “the gateway to Africa” to Nigeria or Kenya. Rick Menell and others told me that since the massacre, the current government, under President Jacob Zuma, has begun for the first time to sit down with business leaders to discuss the rule of law, the breakdown in industrial relations and the failure to deliver basic services to the underclass.
Against the renewed emphasis on building black business, there is an opposing groundswell for more radical statist measures, including a demand from agitators like Julius Malema to nationalize the mines. But the Malema wing of the A.N.C. is, for now, discredited, and the ruling party, for all its outspoken populists, Communists and unionists, seems to have pinned its hopes on a black tycoon.
Ramaphosa, when we met, was cagey and ingratiating, with that habit good negotiators have of dropping in common points of reference. (He cited Malcolm Gladwell.) The hair and beard have been cropped, the blue blazer is perfectly tailored. It is easier to imagine him winning over a board room or a foreign business delegation than rousing a union meeting or a campaign rally. But maybe that sells South Africa short. During the interview, my mind went back to a conversation I had a few days earlier with a 29-year-old woman, the head of the A.N.C. Youth League chapter in a forlorn squatter camp on the far eastern outskirts of Johannesburg. Her candidate for savior of South Africa, she told me, was not any of the Youth League radicals, but Trevor Manuel, the sober, studiously uncharismatic former finance minister. This was like canvassing a low-income housing project in Chicago and discovering a groundswell for Ben Bernanke. As Ramaphosa talked, I couldn’t help wondering if South Africa has moved past the pumped fist.
In fairness, South Africa has made real progress. The country has grown a substantial black middle class and extended subsistence-level welfare for the poorest. But an enormous population remains immobilized at the bottom. The combination of economic empowerment for the rich and welfare for the poor has created not just a wide gulf in living standards but also a cultural gap between the ambitious and powerful and the dependent and despairing.
The fastest growing party is not the A.N.C. or the opposition Democratic Alliance, though the D.A. has a larger foothold than it did a few years ago; it is the party of nonvoters, the disillusioned. The message you hear from the top of the business establishment down to the rankest squatter camps is that thievery and ostentatious materialism have corroded the moral foundations of the governing African National Congress. If I had to sum up what I heard in two weeks of reporting in a simple plea, it would go like this: Spare us the liberation cant; send us someone who can just get the damn job done.
Thabo Mbeki, who had the impossible task of following Nelson Mandela, was not that person. Mandela came to bitterly regret his acquiescence on that choice, as Mbeki grew remote, paranoid and autocratic while in power. Kgalema Motlanthe, another mine-union veteran who served a tour as the country’s interim president after Mbeki was ousted and is currently deputy president, is regarded as decent but ineffectual.
And President Zuma, elected in 2009, has become a laughingstock. Graft and nepotism have dominated the headlines. Cronyism has diminished the competence of government ministries that were already feeble. His original support included the rabble-rousers of the A.N.C. Youth League, the Communist Party and the trade unions representing those sclerotic state bureaucracies — not a natural constituency for moderation or accountability. On top of that, Zuma has introduced a disquieting element of Zulu nationalism into a party that prides itself on rising above tribalism, and his sex life has invited both ridicule and loathing. In addition to his coterie of polygamous marriages and mistresses, some of whom live on the largess of special interests, he beat a rape charge after blaming the young woman’s short skirt and disclosed that his home remedy for infection after unprotected sex was to take a shower.
The obvious question, asked by skeptics and admirers alike, is how much a Cyril Ramaphosa can do to fix a system that is festering from top to bottom.
“It’s not about Cyril being corrupt,” his friend James Motlatsi says. “You can’t corrupt him. But now people will focus on Cyril, not Zuma. Expectations will be too high again.” And, he adds, “you know, that sea has got a lot of sharks.”
Ramaphosa acknowledged the corruption, describing it as “a cancer” and “a monster,” but said he was confident it could be “reeled in.” When I asked specifically about Zuma, whose latest scandal is the fortune in government and special-interest money lavished on his fortified country estate, Ramaphosa deferred to the various official investigations under way, which may or may not be allowed to run their course. (South Africa’s most effective anti-crime unit, nicknamed the Scorpions, was disbanded after it became a threat to Zuma and other top officials.) The fact that South Africa has an aggressive free press and outspoken opposition parties and law-enforcement agencies that provide the critics with so much meat is a sign of underlying ethical health, he said.
I told him that I’d found his friends divided between those who worry that he will forfeit his credibility by riding back into government alongside Zuma, and those who say he had no choice but to hold his nose and plunge in. He flashed a large grin, uttered his only “no comment” of the interview and then let out a roar of laughter.
Ramaphosa’s reappearance in the line of succession surprised many people who doubted he had the fight in him. (“Cyril has made a career out of disappointing people,” complained the editor of one major newspaper.) He has some of Obama’s distaste for drama; he did not fight for the deputy job but waited to be anointed. When we met, Ramaphosa made a point of sounding eager for combat. “The one thing I liked with Obama’s acceptance speech” after the 2012 election, he volunteered, “was when he said, ‘Democracy can be noisy and messy.’ But it works. And I think ours is like that as well. Ours is very dramatic and messy and noisy.”
Ready or not, expectations have been fanned back to life. Having been crowned Zuma’s deputy in the party, Ramaphosa is poised to become vice president of the government. (That will mean depositing his wealth into some kind of trust.) There is speculation, so far unconfirmed, that Zuma will let him carve out a role as a kind of prime minister, surround himself with an honest and competent team and start enacting the reforms laid out in the new national development plan. There is a more improbable chance that Zuma, perhaps even before the next election in 2014, will be dragged down by allegations of malfeasance, leaving Ramaphosa at the top.
This may all be magical thinking, but South Africa’s young democracy has a resilience, a limber quality that has taken it this far. Everything about South Africa is negotiated, including the terms of coexistence across lines of language, race, ideology and class. Maybe the country is ready for a negotiator in chief, a man who brings, among other things, an instinct for the sufficient consensus.

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