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The man who would be king

Text: Sue Segar. Picture: Kevin Sutherland/Sunday Times. Article from the September 2014 issue of Noseweek Magazine.

Cyril Ramaphosa is a shoo-in as the next president of the ANC and of the country – but largely as the ANC’s ‘default candidate”.
South Africa's Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa
South Africa’s Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa

The quintessential loyal party man. That’s how Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa came across at a recent rare briefing with parliamentary journalists, when he made the astounding assertion that President Jacob Zuma’s cabinet is made up of hard-working, efficient ministers, with high integrity, and management processes to match those of the private sector. This, amid indications that things are pointing south, economically and politically, with South Africa having been downgraded by ratings agencies; the Reserve Bank having forecast reduced growth; and with City Press revealing that at least 19 members of the new cabinet still hold private business interests.

To what should one attribute his apparent optimism? Does he really believe things are hunky-dory? Can he happily be part of a government that has a reputation for corruption?

To some, he may represent a refresh-ingly different tone and direction, but how influential is he in the ANC and is he to be the country’s next president?

Political analyst Prince Mashele paints Ramaphosa as a fiercely ambitious man who, lacking influence in the party, is playing a cautious hand so as not to offend rivals in the party – most of whom are from KwaZulu-Natal.

Mashele, executive director of the Centre for Politics and Research think-tank, told Noseweek: “Those comments about a good team are nonsense. This is the weakest cabinet we have had since Mandela.” He said Ramaphosa was “very weak” in the ANC’s KZN section, which currently runs the party, and that he was “not influential at all”.

“Quite clearly he wants to rise to the top so he is playing very cautiously, hoping that one day he will be number one.” That goal, he said, is not impossible, depending on factional interplay up to the 2017 ANC conference.

“My sense is he will eventually become president,” said Mashele.

At the media breakfast, held at the Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town Ramaphosa punted the National Development Plan as the overarching plan for South Africa. He tried to reassure those sceptical about the quality of the cabinet by saying all ministers had signed performance agreements and would be held to account by Zuma for the performance of their departments. Ways would be found to finance South Africa’s energy needs, including the nuclear programme, costing trillions. Nuclear power would form part of the future energy mix, along with natural gas, shale gas, coal and renewable energy. One thing we don’t want is an energy deficit.

“If there’s anything you could hold out as a legacy of President Zuma, it is that he is clear-headed and focused on making sure we have sufficient energy to fuel the growth of the economy,” said Ramaphosa. Without blinking.

Ramaphosa scoffed at suggestions that censorship of the media was creeping into South Africa – but added that “of course we want a patriotic media”.

Ramaphosa was evasive when asked whether he had benefited from BEE, insisting that, as a businessman, he had taken “quite a bit of risk”. He reassured journalists that the process of handing over control of his investments into a trust, to prevent any conflict-of-interest, was well under way.

He said he took in his stride insults and criticism about his personal wealth having increased by R2.6 billion since he entered business.

“When you are in politics you have to have a thick skin, and statements such as that you represent capital — or the devil – are all in the course of politics. They could be motivated by hatred or  anything , so you take it in your stride.”

He takes insults in his stride about his wealth having increased by R2.6bn since he entered business

And in the wake of Marikana (it is now known that Ramaphosa called for “concomitant action against criminals” by the police a day before the massacre), Ramaphosa said he had “not really” seen the criticism as an insult.

Mashele said many of Ramaphosa’s assertions on the government’s performance can be shown to be out of touch.

“Most people try and project him as this guy who rose on the basis of his political abilities… but he is Deputy President thanks to the benevolence of the powerful KZN faction in the ANC.

“If we recall what happened before he was nominated as ANC Deputy President, for some time there was a political tussle between two chiefs in the ANC – Jacob Zuma and Kgalema Motlanthe. It was not clear whether Motlanthe was going to stand. Before then the name Cyril Ramaphosa did not come up as a potential deputy to Zuma. But, when it became clearer that Motlanthe was going to stand, the KZN faction realised that Motlanthe’s trump card was the perception of credibility while the weakness of the Zuma camp was a perceived lack of credibility. So they looked around and identified Ramaphosa as a number two.

“It does not mean that the KZN faction trusted him or that he is part of that faction. He has never been part of that faction. He was in business, floating and waiting for his moment in the ANC… So his standing in the ANC depends on a powerful ANC faction at the time.”

Mashele pointed out that Ramaphosa had been made deputy chair (under Trevor Manuel) of the National Planning Commission. And “as one of the guys who led the crafting of the National Development Plan, the NPC is essentially Cyril’s baby, so when he became Deputy President, logic would dictate that he should lead the implementation of the important NDP”.

Instead, Zuma had taken away the stewardship of the implementation of the plan and given it to Jeff Radebe from KZN. If Ramaphosa were to be put in a position to provide that sort of technical leadership, he would over-shadow the president, said Mashele.

Ramaphosa is not trusted by Zuma, said Mashele. He was not likely to have been consulted when Zuma appointed his ministers, therefore “everything he says about the cabinet comes to zero”.

“His comments [on the cabinet] cannot be trusted… they are not a true reflection of what he thinks. He was trying to play diplomacy so the fourth estate has the impression he is part of the leadership when, in my view, he is not.

“He is on shaky ground politically.”

It was possible for “the factional tide” in the ANC to turn in favour of Ramaphosa as 2017 approached, because Zuma was serving his last term.

“People in the ANC have demonstrated previously that they were capable of shifting political loyalties midway when a president is serving his last term. We saw that with Mbeki. When people saw he was weakening politically, they shifted their loyalties, so it is possible that this could happen.

“My sense is that Ramaphosa will eventually become president. I think he is going to partner with [ANC secretary-general] Gwede Mantashe. They will become a formidable force as we get closer to 2017.

“Mantashe is working as secretary-general for the second time and there is no way he will want to come back to that position. Mantashe wants to become Deputy President – that is most likely to happen if he teams up with Ramaphosa and, if that happens, the KZN faction will find it difficult to field anyone who can stand up to them. Watch that space, that is where we are going.”

Had Ramaphosa’s role in Marikana tarnished his former image as a saviour of the nation waiting to be appointed to a key leadership position?

“He is not a fallen hero,” said Mashele. “There are sections in the ANC, particularly from the labour component of the tripartite alliance, like Numsa, who are critical of him, but in the context of internal ANC politics, I don’t think Marikana has dented him… The spotlight has not been on Cyril, but on the police, with regard to the killings… and because the state played such an important role in that saga, there has been a need on the ANC’s part to consolidate and protect each other. Cyril benefited from that. He did not stand out as the guy who played a unique, decisive role in Marikana. Very few are perspicacious enough to see his important role, but generally South Africans don’t think he played such a decisive role,” said Mashele.

Fellow analyst Susan Booysen says that although strong groupings may see Ramaphosa as a possible “saviour” of a future governent, the ANC’s inner circle still considered him an “invitee” to the position of Deputy President. There was a widespread feeling that he had not really earned the position and that it was the NEC or top leadership’s right to dispose of him – or not.

“But he is working very hard to make himself the chosen one – as we can see in the way he defers to Zuma. He has not shown any personality at all in the position… except to say how great his colleagues are, and how deserving they are of their positions.”

Booysen pointed out that there were two other big contenders, both with KZN links: ANC treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize, who was “well-positioned well-off and debonair, with constituencies in the ANC”; while African Union chair Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma “could fit the bill as a woman president”.

Over the past few years, Ramaphosa had lost acceptance as the authentic voice of workers, said Booysen.

“Workers in the left part of Cosatu certainly have not accepted him for a long time… You cross to business and you lose that… Marikana reinforced that [perception] and brought it home for more people.

“It is clear – to the extent that Ramaphosa came in on the back of the government, in not accepting responsibility for the security forces at Marikana – that he is completely in line with ANC thinking on the topic. But that could enhance his standing.

“Another point, we should not forget, is that he was the ‘executioner’ for Zuma in the Julius Malema matter.

“He was the one on the disciplinary committee that steadfastly worked for Malema to be ousted and he was successful – so there’s a sense he has earned his stripes for loyalty to Zuma, although I am not sure whether that propels him right into the succession stakes… That is in gestation.”

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