There is no such thing as a born leader, says Cyril Ramaphosa. Good leaders are made.

The leading businessman, executive chairman of black-owned investment company Shanduka Group, said this in his keynote address on Wednesday night as he received the Leadership in Practice Award (LIP) from Unisa's School of Business Leadership (SBL) at a black tie affair at Emperors Palace.

Previous winners of the prestigious award include Nthato Motlana, Wendy Luhabe, Dikgang Moseneke, Aggrey Klaaste, Sizwe Nxasana and Cheryl Carolus.

In his acceptance speech, Ramaphosa said he dedicated his award to Eric Molobi, the past chairman of Kagiso Trust, who died at 58 after a long battle with cancer.

Like Ramaphosa, Molobi was a political activist, a former Robben Islander who went on to amass relative wealth when he turned to business.

Molobi was awarded the LIP posthumously in 2006.

Ramaphosa said leaders who stand the test of time are those who subject themselves to recall.

As he paid tribute to "the best leader I've ever had the privilege to work under", Nelson Mandela. Ramaphosa warned that good leaders never surged ahead without the views of others. Mandela, he said, always sought the views of those around him before embarking on an action.

"Leadership is also about addressing burning issues of the day," he said, and in his view, "Zimbabwe, Kenya, cry out for good leadership".

While the task of bringing a semblance of order to Zimbabwe was bestowed by SADC leaders on President Thabo Mbeki, Ramaphosa himself withdrew from mediation efforts in Kenya alongside former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan when President Mwai Kibaki's team objected to the business tycoon's role.

But his was a guarded speech, following in the footsteps of the press conference at which political questions were swiftly brushed aside.

With Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Aziz Pahad among those in attendance, Ramaphosa spoke hesitantly about political leadership, choosing rather to address the term within the strict confines of the SBL, whose vision is to be "the leading African business school of choice".

When he strayed, it was to lament the silence of leaders when "women are attacked at taxi ranks".

To his credit, Mbeki, who has made few buddies with his quiet diplomacy in Zimbabwe, has spoken out against the attacks at the Noord Street taxi rank.

Addressing the National House of Traditional Leaders in Pretoria two weeks ago, Mbeki said no culture would condone attacks on women simply because they dared wear a miniskirt.

But the night belonged to Ramaphosa, who had his audience hanging on to his every word. Borrowing from Ayi Kwei Armah's The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born, Ramaphosa insisted that the current crop of leaders could do more.

But at the press conference a few minutes before his time at the podium, he'd promised: "I am an eternal optimist. I have confidence in leaders across the continent to find solutions to the problems."

The leaders would rise to the challenge, he assured.

Since there is no problem without a solution, he said, there is always a solution lurking in the background.

Whatever Africa's problems, "cometh the hour, a solution will be found".

What drives him is the fear of failure, he said. Whatever one's vocation, one always had to ensure one did things to the best of one's ability.

"Each one of us is gifted for something," said the ex-politician, who says he still hopes to be president of his golf club. "It could be digging a trench. Do that to the best of your ability, as if there is no tomorrow. Do it like Tiger Woods plays golf.

"My hair grows every day, just as yours does. Improvement on an ongoing basis is what drives me."

It is clearly this quest for new ways of doing things that has propelled the Turfloop BProc graduate to the top of his business game.

His name is to be found among the crème de la crème of such companies as Mondi, MTN, Bidvest and SASRIA.

His curriculum vitae lists directorships that include SABMiller, Macsteel Holdings, Alexander Forbes and Standard Bank.

In singing his praises on the night, the organisers reminded guests that Ramaphosa had received the Olaf Palme Prize in 1987, among other awards.

"He has received honorary degrees from universities in South Africa, the US and Ireland," the SBL told us.

"He sits on the board of the Commonwealth Business Council and is vice-chairman of the Global Business Coalition on HIV-Aids, Tubercolosis and Malaria (GBC).

"He's also a member of the Coca-Cola International Advisory Board and is the honorary consul-general for Iceland in South Africa."

Billed at some point as the man most likely to succeed Mandela, Ramaphosa, still a member of the ANC NEC, fobbed off questions about aspirations for high political office.

He would not even entertain questions about whether or not his name would feature in the next Forbes magazine list of the world's wealthiest - dollar billionaires, where countryman Patrice Motsepe ranks in a handsome 503rd position.

Instead the chancellor of the University of Venda extolled the virtues of the mining industry and how profitable it has become.

"Young people watch Muvhango and Generations - they see people in advertising, IT,"Ramaphosa said. "They then want to do that. But lo and behold, when they want jobs, they find there are no jobs. There's an oversupply of people in those industries, while people in engineering easily find jobs."

He cited the example of a young woman who, at just 25, is chief engineer with 200 people working under her.

"If I were young," said Ramaphosa, who turns 56 in November.

"I'd go to the mines, even if it meant donning an overall and starting as a lasher."

The first general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, his biggest regret, he said, was not having worked on the mines.

After acquitting himself well in this position he became general secretary of the ANC in 1991, where he worked with the "Boss Lady" Carolus, who was his deputy.

Then followed exceptional work in the negotiations to usher in a new political dispensation.

He was on one side - the former liberation movement seeking to rule the country, with Roelf Meyer on the opposite side - the ruling apartheid government preparing to step aside for majority rule.

After losing the round to Mbeki to fill Mandela's big shoes at the helm, he blazed a trail in business.

On Wednesday night his peers gathered to honour him - one of many awards.

"We are honoured to acknowledge his exceptional achievements in business and politics, and thus bestow on him this prestigious award," the SBL said to a toast proposed by another business heavyweight, Bongani Khumalo, chair of the school's board.

With this in mind, it's hard to think of one as qualified to address the issue of leadership.