The real test still awaits Ramaphosa

Cyril Ramaphosa and Jacob Zuma. (Gallo)

Cyril Ramaphosa and Jacob Zuma. (Gallo)

As the ANC concludes the process of drawing up its lists for next year's elections it is clear that businessperson Cyril Ramaphosa is set for a long-delayed senior role in government.

And yet, both in English and my home language, Setswana, there are so many wise sayings that warn us not to believe everything we see, that it's wise to be cautious – just as things appear to be on the way up, they might actually be spiralling downwards.

Ramaphosa would be well advised to heed such sayings and prepare for some grey hairs before he uncorks the champagne.

When he left the political stage in 1997, his name was second only to Nelson Mandela's among our heroes who had successfully negotiated a power transfer from the National Party apartheid government to democratic majority rule.

We knew him as the man who extracted concession after concession from the Afrikaner leaders and forged an agreement that eventually led us to a true government of the people by the people.

But then he turned down an offer to serve in Mandela's Cabinet, going instead into business, where he became a leading player in black empowerment deals, hence his present great wealth. The political analysis at the time was that he was sulking because Thabo Mbeki had been chosen ahead of him as Mandela's successor.

But, whatever his reasons, he left with his dignity and credibility intact. If he was indeed smarting from a defeat, he never displayed any public petulance. He was the former leader of the mineworkers, who set the country free and spoke with authority and reason.

His political comeback last year appeared to be fortuitous and reluc­tant, but supporters of Julius Malema will dispute this. They say it was neatly planned – and deliberately enhanced when Ramaphosa, as chairperson of the ANC's disciplinary body, dismissed Malema's appeal against his expulsion from the ANC. Ramaphosa was in his element, scathingly and variously describing Malema's appeal as naive, absurd and ridiculous.

Malema was, by then, persona non grata in the circles surrounding President Jacob Zuma, and Ramaphosa was later elected Zuma's deputy in Mangaung, firmly aligning himself with the current dominant grouping in the ANC.

But even then he showed a streak of independence, refusing to confirm his availability for the deputy president position because he did not want to be pitted against his old comrade, Kgalema Motlanthe. He acceded only a day before voting.

His election was meant to reassure business, international investors and the middle class that the ANC had, in its top leadership, at least one leader who understood a modern economy and was not dominated by the riffraff who wanted to nationalise mines and expropriate businesses.

But the Ramaphosa who returned to active politics in 2012 was not the same man who left with the unblemished record of the 1990s. For starters, he was now an established capitalist – and that can be a swearword in the ANC. He buttressed that image by trying to buy a buffalo bull for about R20-million, an act seen as an insensitive flaunting of wealth in the face of countrywide poverty.

But far more damaging were the events leading up to the Marikana massacre last year. He has emerged as the man who put pressure on the police and mine management to take a tough line on the striking miners. The strike ended in tragedy, with the killing of 34 miners by the police.

The Marikana commission will spend a long time trying to establish whether a causal link exists between Ramaphosa's call for "concomitant" action against the strikers and the police's brutal slaying of the protesters.

So far, claims have emerged that he spoke to the Lonmin management, Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu and Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa, raising his concerns about the strikers' behaviour, which he considered "criminal".

It is possible that in the crucial months before the elections next year Ramaphosa could be spending time not on the hustings but facing a grilling from the likes of advocates George Bizos and Dali Mpofu about his actions. If he not only escapes legal culpability but also maintains his political credibility, it will be an escape more impressive than getting out of Alcatraz.

Beyond that, he must pass a harder, more amorphous test of perception and trust in the eyes of Zuma's people, who still wonder whether he can be trusted to "retain Zuma's legacy" when the current president retires.

In this context, "retaining Zuma's legacy" is a rather generous phrase for preventing any prosecution of Zuma on Ramaphosa's watch if he becomes president.

The fact that corruption and fraud charges against Zuma were merely withdrawn means they can be reinstated at any time – a decision that the prosecutors would have to take with the acquiescence of the country's political leaders at any time.

No amount of bone throwing by sangomas can predict accurately what decisions Ramaphosa would take as president. So, ultimately, it is about what the gut feel of Zuma supporters is when it comes to Ramaphosa. It is a fate that lies outside his control, however much time he spends in KwaZulu-Natal.

My proposition, then, is that, just as all appears to be looking up for Ramaphosa, he might be facing even more troubles than he anticipated when he agreed to return to the political stage. If he overcomes the obstacles to emerge as ANC president in 2017, he will have demonstrated a far tougher dimension to his character than has ever been seen before.

Rapule Tabane

Rapule Tabane

Rapule Tabane is the Mail & Guardian's politics editor. He sometimes worries that he is a sports fanatic, but is in fact just crazy about Orlando Pirates. While he used to love reading only fiction, he is now gradually starting to enjoy political biographies. He was a big fan of Barack Obama, but now accepts that even he is only mortal. Read more from Rapule Tabane


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