/ 17 May 2019

Cyril played his cards right to the top

Cyril played his cards right to the top
Constant: Cyril Ramaphosa, who became president in February 2018, was there when union federation Cosatu (left) was formed in 1985. (David Harrison) &


“I’m an enigma, you know,” Cyril Ramaphosa said to Anthony Butler at one point when Butler was talking to him about writing his biography. As Butler recounts in the preface to the book, newly released in its third edition, the president made this comment “conspiratorially”, but it was part of an attempt to dissuade Butler from writing his biography.

“You can’t write much about an enigma, he observed, unless it lets you into its secrets,” Butler continues. “He made it clear I would get nothing from him: no introductions, no personal papers, no documents and no access to police files.”

There would be further attempts by Ramaphosa to discourage the notion of a biography, including a threat to sue Butler, but he apparently relented and, when Butler saw Ramaphosa again, “he was back to his habitual and impenetrable charm”. He wished Butler well, but “remained implacable in his unwillingness to help me”.

And yet, as Butler proceeded with the task of writing the biography, he found little resistance from those he wished to interview on the subject. Some may have asked Ramaphosa if it would be okay for them to speak to Butler about him, but, as far as he could tell, Butler writes: “Ramaphosa told those who asked him that it was entirely a matter for them to decide whether or not they wanted to talk to me.”

This, then, looks like a neat set of examples of the “enigma” of Cyril Ramaphosa, and Butler certainly got the book done, building into it a great deal of information and providing a comprehensive portrait of the man and the politician. Part of the enigma, though, is why Ramaphosa wouldn’t want a biography to be written, or might at least be in two minds about the idea.

Butler writes that “any subject of a political biography in South Africa must feel some degree of vulnerability”, and there is surely the possibility that Ramaphosa feared it might be a hostile one, damaging to his political career, or that it would reveal things about him that he’d rather not see in the public domain. But there seem to be no politically compromising secrets Ramaphosa wishes to hide, or at any rate Butler discovered none.

It looks more likely, on the basis of this portrait of him, that Ramaphosa just prefers to play his cards close to his chest. That would be second nature to someone who became a very astute negotiator, first as a union leader, then in the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) negotiations on South Africa’s transition to democracy, later in the drafting of the Constitution, and still later, surely, within a factionally divided and ideologically fraught ANC, as he worked his way back in to a position of power under a president, Jacob Zuma, whom he would ultimately oust.

If so, this tendency of Ramaphosa’s has stood him in good stead, though it left many observers wondering what he was really up to, and what he truly thinks about issues that became ANC policy, such as “expropriation without compensation” on the matter of land. Once he became president of the ANC, Ramaphosa did much to dispel such uncertainty, but a contributing factor was also a character trait that Butler illuminates in the book: Ramaphosa’s patience, his caution, and his ability to play the long game.

After he failed to gain the position of the deputy presidency in the first ANC government, as is well known, Ramaphosa stayed out of public politics for more than a decade. He remained an ANC executive member, but generally kept his head below the parapet. Even accusations that he was plotting against Thabo Mbeki, when Mbeki was president, did not seem to faze him much. They may simply have hardened his resolve and induced him to play his cards very carefully indeed.

Looking at Ramaphosa’s history in the ANC (and Butler has an insightful chapter titled “Becoming ANC” on Ramaphosa’s move from union federation Cosatu and the Mass Democratic Movement into the party), Butler also sees in him an unwillingness to run for positions if he wasn’t sure he’d win. He is certainly no Kgalema Motlanthe, who stood against Zuma for the ANC presidency in 2012, when he had almost no chance of winning, simply on the basis of the principle that ANC leaders should not be elected unopposed.

Motlanthe sought to affirm the internal democracy of the ANC, but it looked like a quixotic gesture divorced from any sense of realpolitik — a mistake Ramaphosa would certainly not have made. And, in the end, it worked in Ramaphosa’s favour, because it took Motlanthe out of the position of ANC deputy president, which he held at that point, and opened the way for Ramaphosa to take it. (If, as some might think, there was a plot on Motlanthe’s part to achieve this particular outcome, Butler quotes him as saying somewhat gnomically that that is “implausible”.)

Butler describes Ramaphosa’s political development in detail (perhaps too much detail in places, for instance the section on the Urban Foundation in the early 1980s), from the son of a respected Soweto policeman who grew close to Black Consciousness, interacted with lawyers and captains of industry, found his way into the National Union of Mineworkers, and ultimately on to a national stage as internal resistance to the white ruling National Party mounted to a climax in the late 1980s.

Ramaphosa came into his own, then, in the Codesa period, and as far as those negotiations went he produced a triumph for a future democratic South Africa. This is the basis of his popularity and the trust South Africans have in him — as demonstrated by last week’s electoral victory for an ANC led by Ramaphosa at a time when the electorate’s faith in the ANC had been severely frayed by the Zuma years of state capture, factionalism and self-aggrandisement.

The real enigma is whether Ramaphosa can do what he has set out to do, which is to clean up the ANC, get rid of the corrupt neopatrimonialists and thereby put South Africa back on course towards economic growth and thus greater employment and a reduction of the grinding poverty that still besets the bulk of the population.

He has, at least, the qualities outlined by Butler, though patience is not necessarily a quality that will assist much at this point. He will have to rely on what one journalist quoted by Butler calls an “almost awe-inspiring sense of self-confidence”, as well as the broad knowledge of South Africa acquired over years of involvement in areas from urban development to unionism, from big business to the internal machinations of the ANC.

If, in some ways, Ramaphosa remains an enigma, he is clearly an enigma South Africa can live with.