Ramaphosa is one step from the top

Cyril Ramaphosa.  Photo: Gcis
Cyril Ramaphosa. Photo: Gcis

Ex-trade unionist in pole position for president

IT WAS in the town of Bloemfontein in 1994 that Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa's ambition of assuming the deputy presidency of the ANC, and thus position himself to succeed Nelson Mandela, was dashed.

Ramaphosa was competing with Thabo Mbeki, who was seen by many in the ANC as a natural crown prince.

The son of the late ANC Struggle icon Govan Mbeki had been groomed for leadership from the time his lips first touched his mother's breasts, and no one was supposed to stand in his way. Delegates did not take kindly to Ramaphosa jumping the queue, as it were. His time would come, they told him.

So Ramaphosa accepted his fate. He concentrated on completing his task as the chair of the Constitutional Assembly, and by 1996 he had delivered South Africa its grand Constitution.

Turning down an offer to become minister of foreign affairs, he slunk off to the business sector.

The day he stood next to Dr Nthato Motlana (the revered businessman and politician who died in 2008 after a long battle with cancer) to announce that he would be quitting politics to help found the National Empowerment Consortium came as a shock for many.

Outside the ANC, there was sadness that the man who many hoped would succeed Mandela would be lost to public life. In the top echelons of the ANC his departure was seen as petulance, the actions of an overly ambitious individual who could not wait his turn.

Mbeki went on to claim the crown at the 1997 Mafikeng conference and then succeed Mandela as president in 1999. But even in victory Mbeki remained suspicious of Ramaphosa, and his henchmen even engineered the investigation into a spurious coup plot against him and other leaders.

At the height of the pre-Polokwane wars, Ramaphosa was courted by party elders and activists to enter the presidency race as a so-called Third Way candidate. He declined, telling them that he did not want to stand in between ferocious hounds.

Ramaphosa returned to Bloemfontein this week to claim the crown he was denied in 1994. Riding on the coat-tails of Jacob Zuma, he replaced Kgalema Motlanthe as deputy president and put himself in pole position to be South Africa's next head of state.

The return to high politics by someone who was seen as the best president South Africa never had marked a dramatic ending to an eventful year for Ramaphosa.

He had begun the year by presiding over the expulsion of enfante terrible Julius Malema from the ANC. As chair of the ANC's (disciplinary) appeals panel, he increased Malema's five-year suspension to complete expulsion, a move that neutered Malema's power and removed one of the biggest threats to Zuma's re-election.

The Malema disciplinary hearing thrust Ramaphosa back into the public spotlight and marked the beginning of his re-emergence into public life. A controversial re-emergence, it must be added.

Presiding over Malema's expulsion earned him the ire of the youth leader's supporters, who portrayed him as Zuma's lapdog. His public image was to be further dented by his decision to mount an R18-milion bid for a buffalo at a Free State auction. Dressed in Afrikaner khakhis, Ramaphosa cut a striking figure at the auction. So much so that nobody remembers who the successful bidder was. In the public mind, Ramaphosa BOUGHT the buffalo.

The buffalo bid was seen as an extremely insensitive act by the unionist-turned-businessman - an indication that he no longer cared about the masses. This attitude was to be further exacerbated in the aftermath of the Marikana massacre. When it emerged that he was a shareholder in Lonmin, the company in whose name the massacre was perpetrated, Ramaphosa was targeted as the face of the company.

Then came the infamous e-mails he sent to his colleagues, telling them that he had told political and police authorities to take "concomitant action" against the striking workers. Ramaphosa had ordered the massacre, read the script of his foes. The public's perception of him as an uncaring fat-cat was entrenched.

But all of that is water under the bridge now. The ANC delegates were only interested in getting Zuma a second term, and anyone who was travelling on the same bus as him could only be good.

Which makes Ramaphosa highly indebted to Zuma. His 3018 votes were not for Ramaphosa the great leader. They were for the man who would give Zuma the gravitas and dignity he so lacks. He has now mortgaged his legacy to Zuma and it will be his fervent wish that things do not go badly wrong in the next few years because that would cost him his shot at the top job.

Informed speculation is that Ramaphosa was ensnared by the promise of him moving into the Union Buildings in 2014 while Zuma concentrates on running the ANC from Luthuli House.

Should this happen, the 60-year-old Ramaphosa would avoid the bruising battle that is likely to be the race for the 2017 ANC leader and the 2019 presidency of the Republic. He will, without lifting a finger, see off challenges from the likes of Tokyo Sexwale, Paul Mashatile and Kgalema Motlanthe.

In office, he would have to agree to be controlled from Luthuli House - with all the risks that would be posed. He would have to protect Zuma from likely prosecution for his pre-presidency crimes, overlook sins committed while the man from Nkandla was in the presidency and continue to be good to his captain's pals.

On the other hand, he could remain loyal to the Constitution he midwifed and defy all the wrong that Zuma represents. He could turn out to be the ANC's great rescue plan and reverse the party's descent into chaos.

It is all up to him to decide whether his legacy is worth sacrificing for a short-cut to the top.