The return of Cyril Ramaphosa to political centre stage has been a long time coming. In April 1996, Nelson Mandela told an astonished nation that the 43-year-old secretary general of the ANC would leave Parliament for the private sector as soon as the constitutional negotiations were concluded.
Mandela had already passed over Ramaphosa for the deputy presidency and his rival, Thabo Mbeki, would become president of the ANC the following year. The former
miners' leader accepted the advice of Mandela's one-time physician, Dr Nthato Motlana, that he was young enough to take a decade out from frontline politics.
Eighteen years have passed and Ramaphosa has apparently returned: older, perhaps wiser and certainly far richer than the late Motlana could ever have imagined.
Some time near the start of this year, Ramaphosa's name began circulating in ANC circles in Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal as a potential candidate for the movement's deputy presidency. The position is likely to be contested, along with other senior ANC offices, at the party's Mangaung conference in December.
Ramaphosa has not commented on speculation about his political intentions. He has appeared deeply preoccupied with the expansion of Shanduka Group, his private investment vehicle that has, in recent times, secured control of Lonmin's black empowerment partner, joined global giant Glencore in a significant coal sector venture and amassed more than R2-billion from the sale of a stake in metals group Assore.
It was not until the nominations process formally opened last month that unexpected support for a Ramaphosa candidacy was revealed beyond KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo – in the Eastern Cape, Free State and Mpumalanga. Ramaphosa has been nominated on a pro-Jacob Zuma slate that typically includes Gwede Mantashe as secretary general, Baleka Mbete as chairperson and KwaZulu-Natal premier Zweli Mkhize as treasurer general.
Zuma and Ramaphosa
Ramaphosa's nominations are evidently loosely co-ordinated. They conceivably flow out of the Zuma camp's frustration about Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe's inscrutable lack of campaigning for the ANC presidency. By proposing Ramaphosa as an alternative deputy, the president's campaign managers may be hoping to force Motlanthe's hand.
But it is equally possible that Ramaphosa's rise has been planned over a longer period. Two years ago, he accepted the position of deputy chairperson of the national planning commission, which has offered him a window to the key challenges facing the government.
Little is known about the personal chemistry between Zuma and Ramaphosa, other than that they worked together constructively in the secretary general's office and in the constitutional negotiations of the early 1990s.
The support of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) has already proved important in neutralising potential opposition in Cosatu to a Zuma second term. The support of the former miners' leader would significantly enhance the credibility of Zuma's campaign.
Ramaphosa brings a close understanding of the needs of established and black business and, through his involvement with companies such as MTN, he has unparalleled personal networks in Europe, Africa and East Asia. His arrival would probably cement the authority of the finance minister, while reversing some of the recent deterioration in investor sentiment.
His inclusion on the ticket may also have guaranteed the loyalty of his one-time protégé, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe, whose desertion would be the most prized catch for the anything-but-Zuma campaign.
The attractions for Ramaphosa of such a direct route to high office are obvious. Even after a properly dignified handover, he could emerge as deputy state president early in 2014 – and without having to fight off peers such as Tokyo Sexwale and Mathews Phosa. When Zuma presumably steps down as ANC president in 2017, Ramaphosa would still be only 65 and he would be a well-placed challenger for the succession.
It is less immediately clear what South Africa would get out of the deal, other than another term for the arguably feckless Zuma. One possible answer is social stability. As a result of Zuma's unshakeable support in KwaZulu-Natal, he will either win, or lose narrowly, at Mangaung. If the result is close and procedurally contested, it could produce an unprecedented ethnic polarisation that might destroy the ANC. The anything-but-Zuma campaign has some good arguments on its side – but it is asking activists to take a big risk in pursuit of what evidence suggests would probably be an ineffectual Motlanthe presidency.
It is far better, in this view, to stick with the ineffectual devil the ANC knows and surround him with handlers, policy wonks and fiscal conservatives. Given his age and hands-off style, Zuma might even be persuaded to perform an increasingly ceremonial role from his attractive new residence in Nkandla.
Ramaphosa's admirers claim he would bring certain capabilities to the ANC deputy presidency. He is an institution builder. He is as little intimidated by Julius Malema today as he was by Peter Mokaba and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in the past. He would champion non-racialism and constitutional government. Working with Mantashe, he might restore some discipline to the ANC and modernise its membership and electoral systems.
Ramaphosa's prospects could easily be dashed. The apparently orchestrated campaign to discredit him with selective quotations from Lonmin emails might yet bite. Motlanthe could return to the fold, although there is ebbing enthusiasm for this prospect in the Zuma camp.
Can a fat cat win? Ramaphosa has always believed that education, the arts, vintage wine and fast cars should not be reserved for the rich or middle-class whites. As a union leader he always flew first class. He also insisted that his regional negotiators, some of whom had never been inside a hotel before, should stay in the same luxury hotels as their management counterparts.
It is certainly troubling to be rich when there are so many poor people in society. But the ANC is squaring this circle in the same way that wealthy Christians believers have always been, by treating wealth as a sign of grace. If you are rich you are in favour – either with God or Luthuli House. Ramaphosa's rise is far from certain, but his wealth alone is unlikely to impede it.
Anthony Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town and is the author of Cyril Ramaphosa (Jacana)