Cyril plays a careful game

Constant: Cyril Ramaphosa became president in February 2018, but it has been a hard journey from trade unionist to the very tricky period of being deputy to Jacob Zuma. (David Harrison)

Constant: Cyril Ramaphosa became president in February 2018, but it has been a hard journey from trade unionist to the very tricky period of being deputy to Jacob Zuma. (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 other attempts by Ramaphosa to discourage the biography, but he apparently relented and, when Butler saw Ramaphosa again, “he was back to his habitual and impenetrable charm”.

Butler 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.

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 the transition to democracy, later in drafting 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 (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 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 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 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 the May 8 electoral victory for an ANC led by Ramaphosa at a time when the electorate’s faith in the party 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”, and 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.

Ramaphosa is up against some ruthless, amoral people. Can he be ruthless enough to defeat them?

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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