The metamorphosis of Cyril Ramaphosa

In this season of nascent political larvae, when allegations of conspiracy and other creeping unpleasantness are to be found under every rock, supporters of Cyril Ramaphosa’s presidential metamorphosis are leaving no stone unturned. Reports that the unionist-turned-tycoon is readying his campaign for the presidency are part of the plot against Ramaphosa, they charge.

“Any person who raises their hand a year and half before the ANC national conference [in December next year] knows that they will be dead,” one national executive committee member barked over the phone after City Press published its lead story under the headline “Cyril joins ANC race”.
“This is a continuation of the saga—Cyril’s enemies want to destroy him.”

Admittedly the story did leave questions in the mind of the reader—why, for example, would businessman Mzi Khumalo (who Ramaphosa bumped heads with in 1996 when Khumalo snatched up Johannesburg Consolidated Investments, with the help of the late Brett Kebble) be backing him, as suggested by the article?

TV personality Redi Direko and public relations consultant Ramotena Mabote, who were allegedly approached by Ramaphosa’s aides to manage his campaign, have flatly denied the claims.

Former president Nelson Mandela, who was named in City Press as supporting Ramaphosa’s renewed ambitions, would “remain entirely impartial in this matter”, said his spokesperson Zelda le Grange.

On Tuesday, Ramaphosa issued his own denial: “I have not engaged, nor sought to engage others on my behalf in any campaign with respect to the presidency of the ANC, and have no interest in being a candidate.” Interestingly, his carefully worded statement made no mention of the presidency of the republic.

There is little doubt that Ramaphosa—gentleman of black economic empowerment—harbours political ambitions. A Ramaphosa candidacy would have broad popular appeal and be attractive to various wings of the African National Congress. But, ironically, it is the former union leader’s ascent into the monied classes that could be his trump card.

For the first time in the party’s history its business wing—a tradition wholly unfamiliar to the ANC—may have the financial and political clout to muscle aside the left and the trade unions in making or breaking a presidential contender.

The (declared) business people in the ANC’s 60-person national executive committee are Manne Dipico, Saki Macozoma, Penuell Maduna, Popo Molefe, Valli Moosa, Max Sisulu, Mathews Phosa and Ramaphosa. This collection of individuals may be numerically small, but it has critical mass. All are vintage ANC, and their combined wealth reaches well into billions of rands.

But it would be a mistake to assume that because they share centrist economic values these individuals form a homogenous political bloc, or that Ramaphosa “represents” them. Says one business person who is a member of the national executive committee: “Some of us are not even friends. It would be a crazy idea to assume we conspire as a group.”

For most of these individuals, their own presidential ambitions or backing of a certain candidate are just as likely to be driven by the desire to settle political scores as they are by the lofty goals of macro-economic policy stability or straddling the ANC’s burgeoning ideological divide. Having money to throw at the problem simply strengthens their hand. 

Said an ANC national executive committee member this week: “The people in the movement who don’t necessarily support a [Jacob] Zuma presidency, or Kgalema [Motlanthe] are now keen to find an alternative candidate, and Ramaphosa is one of those.”

The respect Ramaphosa commands inside and outside the ANC, and the perception that he is above the fray, clearly make him an attractive compromise. But there is a subtext: settling an old political score with Thabo Mbeki. Ramaphosa left active politics in 1997 after losing a bruising succession battle with the current president.

The differences between Ramaphosa and Mbeki were never ideological, and the former unionist’s transforming into a wealthy businessman suggests that not much would be different under a Ramaphosa presidency. But unlike Mbeki, he commands a strong rank-and-file constituency.

The fact that Ramaphosa’s flag has been raised so early could indeed be destructive. His detractors are likely to dish the dirt on him—there are still questions, for example, about how he escaped scot-free after a company he chaired, the Molope Group, collapsed in 2001 amid suspicions of fraud and theft. 

Ramaphosa is no shrinking violet. His urbane temperament masks a killer political instinct. Can he metamorphose once again? Into a butterfly, or a moth? Watch this space.

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