A new biography about Cyril Ramaphosa paints a portrait of a pragmatic reconciler and institution builder, but fails to penetrate the veil writes Drew Forrest.
By the end of their decade-long face-off in mining talks, the Chamber of Mines’s seasoned chief negotiator, Johann Liebenberg, was finally able to discern when Cyril Ramaphosa was losing his temper.
But not by any change in Ramaphosa’s demeanour. ‘It was like something was filling up to the brim behind his eyes—but it would never break through,” Anthony Butler’s biography Cyril Ramaphosa (Jacana) quotes Liebenberg saying. ‘On the outside, Cyril always remained calm.”
Butler’s contacts with his subject to sound him out on the idea of a biography also highlight the difficulties in reading this intensely private man.
Flatly refusing to grant him interviews, introductions or personal papers, Ramaphosa flummoxed him with his unexpected belligerence: ‘Why do you have so little respect for me? Why are you letting me down? ... I will sue you. Yes, I’ll have your house!”
Butler, a British-born politics lecturer at the University of Cape Town, has written a thoughtful, fair-minded and scrupulously researched book about the internationally renowned union boss turned politician turned businessman.
He paints an admiring picture of Ramaphosa’s skills as a pragmatic deadlock-breaker, tireless organiser and institution-builder.
But, somehow, he does not penetrate the veil—one still feels substantially in the dark about what makes Ramaphosa tick and what he thinks on key issues, notably race and economics. The account of his childhood and private life is notably thin on detail.
In this respect the book stands in contrast with the other major political biography of 2007, Mark Gevisser’s portrait of Thabo Mbeki. A gaudy flower bursting with revealing personal anecdote, the latter clearly profited from Gevisser’s 20-odd hours of interviews with the president.
Where Butler’s book has particular value is in the light it sheds on Ramaphosa’s career trajectory. How did this policemen’s son, model pupil and earnest Christian gravitate towards labour activism in the country’s toughest industry? Why, having insinuated himself into the top echelons of the repatriated ANC did he suddenly bail out to the private sector? And what, in 2007, is his political future?
Butler suggests Ramaphosa’s 11-month solitary confinement under the Terrorism Act, while studying at Turfloop, was a political and personal watershed.
Detention helped wean him from Black Consciousness, which he later described as ‘a sectarian type of movement which tried to get black people to be on their own”. The realisation that Black Consciousness offered no route to power might have propelled him towards the unions and the congress movement.
But Butler argues that the trauma of solitary might have sparked a guarded distance from others, a ‘cold dispassion” behind the broad smile. ‘When I was in detention,” he is quoted saying, ‘I came to realise that friends are like teabags. You boil the water. And you use them once.”
Somewhat buried in Butler’s account of the 1991 to 1995 constitutional talks, a rather wearisome saga of setbacks and breakthroughs, Ramaphosa’s organising genius emerges most strongly from the chapters on his NUM years.
Deployed to the mines in 1982 by a twist of fate—he first applied to Cusa’s furniture affiliate—he faced a repressive behemoth unorganised since the 1940s, based on migrant labour, fortress-like hostels, shoot-first mine security and hard-line managers. Four years later the NUM had 344 000 paid-up members.
Always a big-picture man interested in results, his strategy was to dupe the mine bosses into thinking he was a moderate ally in their battle to break white labour and its skills stranglehold. He penetrated the hostels using access agreements and the covert services of black personnel staff.
Butler turns a spotlight on Ramaphosa’s seminal partnership with Lesotho-born NUM president James Motlatsi, his link-man with the turbulent workforce, describing it as one of the most important political relationships of the 1980s.
Both were to suffer terribly in the wake of the tragic 1987 miners’ strike, which climaxed with the sacking of 50 000 strikers and ushered in an era of mass retrenchments. Motlatsi, seen as traitor by the defeated workers, described 1988 as ‘a nighmare year”.
Butler ably chronicles the tangled ‘exile-inzile” politicking of the post-return period and Ramaphosa’s humiliating defeat of former exiles Jacob Zuma (then Thabo Mbeki’s close ally) and Alfred Nzo in the tussle for the secretary-general’s post at the ANC’s 1991 conference in Durban.
With the sponsorship of Nelson Mandela and backing of the Mass Democratic Movement and key communists—including Joe Slovo and Mac Maharaj—he was at the peak of his political influence.
But he had made powerful exile enemies, who used his Black Consciousness background and late conversion to the ANC to discredit him. To these would be added populists like Winnie Mandela, who could not forgive him his part in the UDF’s intervention over her ‘football club”.
In an ominous precursor of Mbeki’s presidency Butler sketches the dirty whispering campaign against Ramaphosa at the time of the 1994 election, when he and Mbeki were frontrunners for the deputy-presidency.
These included rumours that, because he was detained but not prosecuted, he was an apartheid impimpi; that he had worked for Anglo American; and—most implausibly given his reputation for womanising—that he had a gay fling with National Party negotiator Roelf Meyer.
Disputing the conventional wisdom, Butler argues that Mandela probably wanted to appoint Mbeki, in part because of the latter’s better prospects in treating with the white right and Zulu chauvinists (a Zulu prince is quoted as saying he would not talk to ‘that Venda dog”).
But he suggests that Ramphosa’s famous sulk after Mbeki’s preferment—he refused the foreign affairs portfolio, went to ground for a month and missed Mandela’s inauguration—might have stemmed from a legitimate misreading of the latter’s intentions.
Butler’s biggest problem as a biographer is the fact that his subject has become less interesting—even as a black leader in the private sector to which he retreated in 1996.
The failure of his early empowerment ventures, Nail and Molope, suggests he is more a politician than an entrepreneur. His current vehicle, the financial services company, Shanduka, is described as ‘cautious and value-accretive”.
Politically, too, Ramaphosa looks a spent force. Butler might be right to argue that he has the ideal qualities to lead South Africa, but merit is, unfortunately, not the issue.
He probably still harbours presidential ambitions and he enjoys a kind of generalised respect in the ANC, which ensures his continued presence on the party’s national executive committee. But he features on none of Polokwane’s ‘top six” lists and, during nominations, was endorsed by the merest handful of middle-class branches.
One reason for this must be his transition from working-class hero to BEE fat cat, with an estimated personal fortune of at least R500-million. The ANC grassroots is clearly looking for a different kind of leadership.
But an additional factor is his curious reluctance, for a politician, to throw his hat in the ring or promote himself. In marked contrast with Tokyo Sexwale he refused to campaign or even clarify if he was available as a candidate for Polokwane.
Butler’s book suggests he does not like to contest positions unless he is sure of winning. A pragmatic activist on Aids—he vice-chairs the Global Business Coalition on HIV/Aids, TB and Malaria—he has not once spoken out against Mbeki’s aberrations on the disease.
Here is one of paradoxes of Ramaphosa. How could a man who took on the mighty mining industry, who launched one of South Africa’s biggest and most terrifying strikes, become such a shrinking violet?.