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Review of Cyril Ramaphosa


By Colin Bundy

Cyril Ramaphosa. Anthony Butler. Jacana, Johannesburg, 2007 and James Currey, Oxford, 2008. Pp. 442. ISBN 978-1-84701-315-6 (pb). £18.95

Somebody at Jacana or James Currey publishers must have thought it worth a flutter. An incautious strapline, diagonally across the cover photograph of Cyril Ramaphosa, asks “Will he be the next President of South Africa?” Whoever opted for this opportunistic punt ought to have considered the author’s assessment. At crucial points of Ramaphosa’s career, “ambition was tempered by a fear of losing.” His political makeup meant that “he did not like to stand if he thought that he might lose.” (pp. 396, 252)

This judgement certainly holds good for Ramaphosa’s tentative candidacy as an alternative to Thabo Mbeki or Jacob Zuma, in the run-up to the Pholokwane conference of December 2007. The African National Congress spent 18 months in a rancorous contest between aspirant Zuma and incumbent Mbeki, memorably characterised as a choice between the warm and the wily. Ramaphosa was touted briefly as a runner offering both warmth and wiliness, but he withdrew in ostensible deference to the “collective decision–making” practices of the ANC.

Anthony Butler completed his biography of Ramaphosa shortly before Pholokwane: before Zuma’s populist support swept aside Mbeki’s technocratic and commandist defenders and ushered in a fraught division of power between lame duck President and tainted party boss. Zuma (at the time of writing) has gone to court to have charges withdrawn, and any number of questions cloud his future.

But this fluent and deeply informed biography prompts a series of quite different questions about the nearly man: a consummate insider, a towering figure in domestic challenges to apartheid in the1980s; chief negotiator for the ANC as a new political order was hammered out; briefly heir apparent, and for the last decade an emblematic “struggle capitalist”, spokesman and beneficiary of Black Economic Empowerment.

What was it about Cyril Ramaphosa that established him so decisively as a political leader? How did he rise so swiftly from his trade union role to take centre stage during the Codesa negotiations? Why, having won election to one of the key executive positions in the ANC, did his political career stall? Has his on-off record as a businessman been driven by a deep commitment to Black Economic Empowerment – or was it, as a shrewd Anglo executive ventures, “a convenient way-station …just a vehicle for the necessary accumulation of wealth” for one whose “first love is politics”?

Butler’s biography provides suggestive answers to such questions, although he is careful to insist that his reading of Ramaphosa is not definitive. For Butler is well aware of how elusive his subject can be: that he is “all things to all men” recurs as a judgement. Able to win trust through a combination of the common touch and uncommon abilities, he can be prickly and stubborn; and always his “deeper beliefs and opinions remain hidden” (p. 395). Butler recounts several approaches he made to Ramaphosa for assistance while writing the biography; the refusals – “no introductions, no personal papers, no documents, and no access to police files” – and how Ramaphosa couched these refusals in apologetic, hectoring, and intimidating styles in addition to his “habitual and impenetrable charm” (pp. ix-xi).

Butler compensated for this absence of direct access to Ramaphosa by an extensive and effective series of interviews. He quotes frequently, and tellingly, from interviews with some 80 respondents. We hear from Cyril Ramaphosa’s family members, his school and university classmates and teachers; his employers and colleagues; his friends and comrades; and his antagonists, the managers of the once all powerful gold-mining industry, and National Party politicians. He must be a sympathetic and skilful interviewer. Named informants provide revealing and juicily indiscreet remarks - as do others who insisted on anonymity. Butler remarks that he has “tried to allow Ramaphosa’s friends and foes the space to explain him in their own, often inconsistent, terms” (xiv). While this method probably ensures that the subject is rendered in his complexity, it does leave the reader wishing at some points for more decisive authorial judgements.

Ramaphosa’s childhood was blessed by a stable and affectionate family. He went to school first in Soweto and then in rural Venda; a devout Christian, his early activism was evangelical. A turning point in his life arrived when he sought to read law on the turbulent Turfloop campus. Ramaphosa’s role as student leader carried a grim price: 11 months in detention, in solitary confinement, followed by expulsion from the University.

The young man then rebuilt his life. He worked as an articled clerk in a legal firm; married a schoolyard sweetheart; opened a small business and bought his first car. Then, quite adventitiously, a 29-year-old Ramaphosa began work in 1982 as legal adviser to a trades union council. By the end of that year he was General Secretary of the new National Union of Miners.

The chapters dealing with Ramaphosa and the NUM – its mushroom growth; the gains it won for its 340,000 members; and the ultimately disastrous strike in 1987 – are the strongest in the book. The economic and institutional context is deftly sketched, but at the heart of the narrative is the presence of Ramaphosa: charismatic organiser, astute tactician, telegenic media magnet, and above all chief negotiator for the fledgling union. The interview material is utterly compelling; friend and foe alike attest to the virtuoso skills, subtlety, ruthlessness and personal authority on display.

Ramaphosa became increasingly caught up in high profile United Democratic Front politics, and then, unexpectedly, in charge of the logistics of Mandela’s release. His visibility ignited what Butler calls “the bombshell” of Cyril’s election as Secretary General of the ANC at that body’s 1991 home-coming conference. It was partly in this formal capacity, and partly because of his NUM reputation, that Ramaphosa enjoyed his greatest public role, as the lead negotiator from 1991 to the April 1994 elections. The chapters that cover the four years from Mandela’s release to his election as President provide the best account yet written of the dynamics of ANC politics in these years: the tensions and mistrust between returning exiles and the UDF and COSATU “inziles”; the jockeying for office; how commitment and vision could be sapped by “ethnic squabbling and patronage politics”, and how intrigues and rivalries seeped corrosively into the ANC’s everyday practice.

Ramaphosa, as we have seen, chose not to help his biographer. And yet, when the book was launched in Johannesburg earlier this year, one of the three speakers was Cyril Ramaphosa. He rehearsed his opposition to Butler’s project; conceded that it was the constitutional right of authors to write about whatever they chose to; and then praised the “quality, eloquence and integrity” of Butler’s book. It was an unpredictable tribute from an enigmatic man, but one earned by a fine biography.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 70 (2008), pp. 69-71]

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