Political interference and putting business interests above the wellbeing of workers are some of the accusations Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa will have to face when he testifies at the Marikana commission of inquiry on Monday. But this is unlikely to affect his political career and presidential aspirations, according to political analysts.
Police opened fire on striking miners, killing 34 and injuring more than 70, on August 16 2012 at Lonmin’s platinum mine near Rustenburg, resulting in what has become widely known as the Marikana massacre.
Ramaphosa, who is also the ANC’s deputy president, was a shareholder and nonexecutive director on Lonmin’s board at the time.
Emails sent by Ramaphosa to Lonmin management in the days leading up to the massacre have already enjoyed prominence at the commission. In one of them, sent a mere 24 hours before the mass killing, Ramaphosa states: “The terrible events that have unfolded cannot be described as a labour dispute. They are plainly dastardly criminal and must be characterised as such. In line with this characterisation there needs to be concomitant action to address this situation.”
In other emails Ramaphosa confirmed that he had spoken to the police minister at the time, Nathi Mthethwa, urging the South African Police Service to “take appropriate steps”. Ramaphosa also assured mine management that he had spoken to then-minister of mineral resources Susan Shabangu.
In his statement to the commission, Ramaphosa claimed that his discussion with Shabangu “was to bring to her attention the increasing acts of violence taking place at Marikana, which in Lonmin’s view … were not going to be resolved without political intervention”.
Susan Booysen, a professor at the Wits School of Governance, says Ramaphosa’s chances of making it to the top depend on whether or not he has the support of the party’s national executive committee.
“It is not popular impressions and general negative associations that will affect his chances to get to the top; it’s the ANC’s inner circles and how they view this,” she told the Mail & Guardian.
“The question is: How much would he be able to count on their support?” asks Booysen, referring to the ministers mentioned in Ramaphosa’s statement. “If they want to get rid of him, then this would be a good opportunity.”
But political analyst Ebrahim Fakir points out that Ramaphosa was elected deputy president of the ANC a mere four months after the events at Marikana. In May this year he was appointed deputy president of the country.
“I don’t think his testimony at the commission is going to markedly affect things. Those emails have been made public, yet … even after Marikana had happened and was fairly fresh, the guy was elected deputy president of the ANC in Mangaung. Clearly, his chances aren’t knocked that badly,” says Fakir.
According to Fakir, Ramaphosa is likely to defend himself by saying that he did what any responsible board member who was interested in the sustainability of the business would have done.
“Of course there’s undue influence. What it’s pointing to … is increasingly with the success of [black economic empowerment] and affirmative action … what you will have is dual or divided loyalties,” says Fakir.
In the toss-up between Ramaphosa’s two constituencies, namely the ANC and his business interests, it is clear which won.
Fakir points to the conflict between these two constituencies – one being the mass of Lonmin workers who are potential ANC voters and the other Lonmin as a business. “In this instance we can see which one he came down on,” says Fakir. “It’s not entirely inappropriate. It’s what a board member would do.”
But Fakir points to an even bigger ethical issue, one that is especially pertinent, given Ramaphosa’s background as one of the founders and the first general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers in 1982.
‘Protecting their own interests’
“What Ramaphosa and company show is that institutions are working in a way that is complicit in protecting their own symbiotic interests, not those that they serve. He uses institutional processes to protect Lonmin and himself at the expense of workers,” Fakir maintains.
“If the guy sitting on the board [Ramaphosa] was so concerned about the business, obligations, sustainability, where the fuck was he [when they were] shown noncompliance [regarding] housing, benefits, the social impact they have as board members?”
Political analyst Dr Somadoda Fikeni, on the other hand, argues that Ramaphosa could turn his testimony to his favour. “He could use this opportunity to demonstrate how as a shareholder he had worked towards the betterment of workers, transformation or any such thing. That would be a redemptive strategy … and [could] provide a broader context for the perception that he over time had drifted to the monopoly corporate sector away from the workers’ base.”
But, should this strategy fail, it could cause Ramaphosa embarrassment and highlight the alienation between his wealth and his traditional background, says Fikeni. “This could be used as a way of exposing how the political elite of South Africa have transformed from their humble background into an alienated section.”
Fikeni adds that any harm done to Ramaphosa during his testimony could be used by those who might want to challenge him in the 2017 succession battle.