Cyril Ramaphosa, deputy chairman of New
Africa Investments Ltd, in
THE MARK GEVISSER PROFILE
Rhodes, Rupert, Ramaphosa
WHEN Nthatho Motlana ann-ounced that Cyril Ramaphosa was to join his New Africa Investments Ltd (Nail) and lead the bid to acquire Johnnic from Anglo American, the Sowetan - wholly owned by Nail - put out a 40-page souvenir edition to commemorate the fact. On the front page was a portrait of Ramaphosa; on the back a poster representing the “pioneers of black business”, interspersed with homilies of military strategy. One of these, attributed to Ferdinand Foch, reads as follows: “Battles are lost or won by generals, not by the rank and file.”
It almost knocks the wind out of you to think that the front man for this new, brutally honest emancipation strategy for black South Africa is the very man who most successfully organised the working masses into the collective action of the 1980s.
How times have changed: in those days, the workers were the vanguard; these days, the bosses are.
The General, though, remains the same: charming and unflappable, entirely in control. There’s that smile that wraps itself around his face, that conspiratorial baritone chuckle, that constant engagement masking profound reserve. The most astonishing thing about an encounter with Cyril Ramaphosa is that, eventhough you know he’s spinning you a line, you - oh, hapless trout! - go for the hook anyway. “Be nice to me!” he pleaded with puppy-dog eyes as he kept me waiting for over an hour. “I like your dreads,” he told Mail & Guardian chief photographer Ruth Motau, leading her effortlessly to the place where he wanted to be photographed. “I don’t usually like those things, but I like them on you.” Did we swoon? Of course we did.
As I drove back from my meeting with him, I shook my head in wonder: here was an interview subject who had given me less - in terms of time and insight- than any other person I have profiled in the 18 months of this column. Why on earth did I like him so much?
I am not the first to have pondered this conundrum. One associate says that “even though you’ll never really know whether Cyril likes you or not, you’ll always feel that he has listened, seriously, to what you have to say”. Roelf Meyer, the man who will share immortality with Ramaphosa for bringing us back from the brink through their famed 1992 channel, says, “You always left feeling that you’d been dealt with fairly.” Another says, “he has the astonishing effect of making you feel good about losing - which you inevitably do”; a journalist finds herself susceptible to “his almost awe-inspring sense of self- confidence, the fact that his game-playing doesn’t come from a place of weakness or insecurity”.
But perhaps a political comrade puts it best: “He’s an actor who becomes the part he’s playing. But he always has a smirk in the corner of his face, as if to say, `hey, I know I’m playing a role, and I want you to know it too. We’ve just gotta go through with this.’”
And so, when I ask him whether he agrees that his tenure as African National Congress secretary general was a failure, he responds: “One of my deepest regrets is that ... that ... that I’m not a Formula One racing driver.” Poker-face to see how I react; then guffaws, table-slapping, teeth and lips all over the room. The Game is made manifest. Now he can continue: “Seriously: one of my deepest regrets is that I’ve never had the chance to be a full-time SG. I kept on being pulled into other things ... So I never got round to dedicating time to doing what I was elected to do. I do regret that.”
Why, then, not get down and do it now that the Constitutional Assembly is over, rather than running off to the corporate world? “The times have moved on. Things have changed. I’ve started focusing my attention on another challenge that is more overarching. I want to be one of the pioneers traversing uncharted water.”
Creating a mass-based labour movement in a repressive society, negotiating a settlement out of the impossible: this man clearly likes the pioneer image. As the Randlords harnessed capital in the service of Empire and the Broeders harnessed it in the service of Afrikaner Nationalism, Ramaphosa goes to battle for Black Empowerment. In all three of these phases of South African capitalism, there is a synergy between the ideological aspirations of a ruling class and the personal ambitions of the entrepreneurs themselves: it is not inaccurate, on one level, to compare Ramaphosa to a Rhodes or a Rupert.
Now that the National Empowerment Consortium (NEC) - of which Nail is the major partner - has the Johnnic deal sewn up, Nail is bidding for JCI, the vast mining house from which Johnnic was initially shaved off. Ramaphosa doesn’t say it, but it’s obvious he would rather be JCI’s mining magnate - taking him full circle back to his union roots - than Johnnic’s press baron (the company controls Times Media, which owns the Sunday Times, Business Day and Financial Mail). He is ready to admit he hasn’t yet made the emotional shift from politician to media owner: he identifies strongly with the general ANC position that the media is “unfair” to the new government in only reporting “negative things” about it, and he speaks about the media as “them” and the politicians as “us”.
Will he change his pronouns, one wonders, once he becomes Johnnic’s chair, as is highly likely? Perhaps because he has not yet worked it out, or perhaps because of his near-congenital caginess, he will offer little more than that he is “not interested in turning the Sunday Times into a propaganda organ” (the other two publications will in all likelihood be co- owned with Pearsons, the British group that owns the Financial Times) and that “management will have to begin to reflect the diversity of the population”.
He does not offer, either, a clear formulation about the relationship between the commercial imperatives of maintaining profitability and political ones of providing a news service more in synch with black opinions and the current dispensation. The fact that Ramaphosa continues to harbour political ambition means that, while he might take broad-based black empowerment more seriously than entrepreneurs who really are only using the vehicle for self- enrichment, he will also always have to weigh commercial decisions against their potential political reverberations.
There’s much about his new environment Ramaphosa loves. He admits to the"liberation” of being “able to run with things” in the private sector, as opposed to having to deal with the endless rounds of accountability and committee-mongering that make up political life. And even though he claims to be an ingnu, eyes agape at the fact that there are “so many stilettos in the business world that people hold in the hand to stab you in the back, or even sometimes in your stomach, stilettos they turn with relish”, the richness of the imagery he uses leads me to believe he rather likes that too.
“If Cyril were to be honest,” says one person who knows him well, “I think he’d tell you this time in business is a break, and that he’s intending to go back to politics. Give him two years, though, and I bet you he’ll be hooked.”
Ramaphosa’s move away from politics began, really, with Nelson Mandela’s decision to make Thabo Mbeki deputy president in 1994. Ramaphosa’s supporters say he was upset after having been promised the post; his detractors say his consequent refusal to sit in the Cabinet as foreign affairs minister is evidence of fatal flaws: pride, pique and overweaning ambition. His supporters counter that, despite his smoothie appearance, he abhors the illusion of power that the diplomatic world offers and would have been miserable trapped in the endless circuit of cocktail parties and meaningless protocol. And so, they say, he chose rather to roll his sleeves up and work - turning down status and a surefire ticket to a high profile in order to build the ANC.
Perhaps the error was that it took him out of the loop - not being in the Cabinet meant he was away from the circle of power Mbeki was creating. Whatever Ramaphosa says about having wanted to be in business for a while, there is almost a too-neat timing to the announcement that he was joining Nail just after Trevor Manuel was appointed finance minister (a position Ramaphosa is reputed to have coveted) and Mandela made it clear there would be “no more reshuffles”.
The furthest Ramaphosa will go in linking his move out of politics to having been “pushed out”’ by Mbeki is to say that “the perception [that we are foes] is completety erroneous. We see eye to eye on many things - if we differ, it’s just in emphasis. People like scandal, they like controversy, to be able to say there’s a conflict between two leaders. I’m rather glad, now that we’re in different sectors, that they’re not going to be able to say those things any more.”
Perhaps this is the gentlest, most diplomatic way of acknowledging the strategic thinking behind moving into a new terrain - as a way, in part, of avoiding a power struggle, or at the very least the perception thereof, with Mbeki. Business Day political correspondent David Greybe recalls that Ramaphosa once told him the story of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating in Australia: both leaders of equal status in the Labour Party, they made a deal that Hawke would rule for one term and then give over to Keating. At the end of the first term, though, Hawke refused to uphold his side of the deal. When the same thing happened at the end of Hawke’s second term, Keating decided to challenge him publicly, and won.
Even though there is no evidence that Mbeki and Ramaphosa ever made such a deal, the moral of the analogy seems to be twofold: that such deals are dangerous, and that, given the value the ANC puts on “unity above all else” and its disapproval of internal competition, there is no way it would ever tolerate a direct, open Ramaphosa challenge to Mbeki the way the more robust Australian Labour Party tolerated a Keating challenge to Hawke.
Rather than confronting Mbeki on the terrain in which the deputy president is now undisputed king, Ramaphosa’s strategy seems to be to go off and make his own kingdom. If, indeed, he turns out to be successful, he may well be able to move back into the realm of politics once Mbeki’s tenure is up - unblemished by the inevitable political difficulties an Mbeki presidency will face; as charming and unflappable as ever, and now economically powerful to boot.
Cyril Ramaphosa has his own explanation for how he developed his exterior veneer of charm and unflappability. It comes from his father, he says, a sergeant at the Moroka police station, whom he clearly idolised. So profound was their relationship that, following Cyril’s detention in 1976, the father quit the force. “He was the best kind of policeman,” Ramaphosa remembers, “there to provide a service to people. But we couldn’t see ourselves in a situation where we’d have to stand outside the house defending our father from our comrades.”
Sergeant Ramaphosa brought his children up with a Venda proverb, one he used in his own life, and one his son continues to mutter, as a mantra, in times of adversity: “A mature person will step on a thorn looking at it.” There might be a thorn in Cyril Ramaphosa’s way. He won’t deviate from his path, though, he won’t cry with pain once he tramples on it, and he won’t let you know how much it hurts.