On February 11, 1990 after spending 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela marched through the streets of Cape Town. He later gave a speech on the steps of the Cape Town City Hall. As Mandela gave his speech, a man stood behind him, his hand outstretched with a microphone into which Mandela spoke. 28 years later, that man would give a speech as the fifth president of South Africa, Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa.
Ramaphosa took the path of activism as a law student at the University of the North (Turfloop). During Apartheid South Africa, organisations such as the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO) were fertile grounds of resistance against Apartheid. SASO, formed in 1968 and spearheaded by Steve Biko was a strong student anti-apartheid body. Ramaphosa’s involvement in SASO led to him being detained in solitary confinement for 11 months in 1974 under section 6 of the Terrorism Act, for organising pro-Frelimo rallies.
In 1976 he was detained again following the unrest in Soweto. He was held in detention for six months at the John Vorster Square under the Terrorism Act. Through the Black People’s Convention, Ramaphosa continued his political activism.
Ramaphosa’s rise in politics came with the founding of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the largest trade union in South Africa. As founder and president of NUM, the young and charismatic leader led various strikes and fought against Apartheid.
But what might have set Ramaphosa apart was his skill as a negotiator, a talent he likely honed while heading NUM for over 10 years. When he was elected as the Secretary General of the African National Congress (ANC) in 1991, Ramaphosa was just 37 years of age. At this age, he played a series of key roles in South Africa’s transition from an Apartheid regime to a constitutional democracy. His involvement in the formation of the constitution of the Republic of South Africa, one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, is a serious achievement and legacy that will surely endure.
Upon the release of Mandela from prison, Thabo Mbeki and Ramaphosa contested to be his deputy. Ramaphosa lost and was bitter although he was the preferred candidate by Mandela. During this time, Ramaphosa focused on building his business empire. He is currently estimated to be worth over $700 million.
For many, Ramaphosa had fallen short of their expectations as the trade unionist they knew when he was embroiled in the August 2012 Marikana massacre that saw 34 mine workers killed. The mine workers shot worked for Lonmin Mining Company, where Ramaphosa is a shareholder and a non-executive director. The miners were asking for a pay rise from $500 to $1,500. In September of the same year, barely some weeks after the Marikana massacre, Ramaphosa bid $1.6million for a buffalo.
After severe criticism, Ramaphosa said “I regret it because it is an excessive price in the sea of poverty. I belong to a community and it was one of those moments when I was blind-sighted.”
Unlike his predecessor who was surrounded with controversies throughout his stay in power, Ramaphosa has managed to stay clear of major controversies. He has constantly distanced himself from the corruption allegations that plagued Zuma’s government and has not been tainted despite being Zuma’s deputy.
South Africa’s currency strengthened as the new president took over, an early indication of maybe good things to come. However, critiques are unsure of any real economic change that might be effected by the Ramaphosa led government, or who the real beneficiary could be, only time will tell.