Cyril Ramaphosa, the former labor leader Nelson Mandela had hoped would succeed him as president, became one of South Africa’s wealthiest men while he was waiting decades for his chance.
JOHANNESBURG — Cyril Ramaphosa, who was sworn in Thursday as South Africa’s president, recently did what many politicians do at pivotal points in their careers.
He released a book.
The book told of one of his passions: his love for a Ugandan breed of royal cattle that he imported to South Africa at great expense. Anticipating criticism of his wealth in a country where millions still live in shacks, Ramaphosa argued at his book launch that the cattle were not meant as trophies for the elite like him, but to help struggling black farmers in South Africa.
Now, Ramaphosa, the former labor leader Nelson Mandela had hoped would succeed him as president, has an even trickier argument to make as the nation’s new leader.
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Ramaphosa is a tycoon, one of South Africa’s wealthiest men. To many, he represents a kind of royalty of the African National Congress (ANC), an upper class that has grown removed from the average South African the party still claims to champion.
Yet he vows that as president he will work for the ordinary citizen, root out the country’s debilitating corruption and convince a skeptical public that, under him, the governing ANC can whittle away at the gaping inequality that has enraged millions of citizens.
As a union organizer decades ago, Ramaphosa founded the National Union of Mineworkers, winning mineworkers benefits and better working conditions. Years later, though, he switched sides and sat on the board of a mining company, drawing criticism for his role in a massacre of wildcat strikers.
After being overlooked as Mandela’s successor, he went into business and helped draft new policies to expand a black entrepreneurial class. But Ramaphosa never shied away from using his political ties to accumulate vast wealth for himself, and over the years, critics have said the program rewarded only a small class of black South Africans with ties to the ANC.
When he re-entered politics as deputy president a few years ago, he spoke of corruption as “a cancer” and “a monster,” and he later pushed through a new minimum-wage law. Yet, he stayed largely quiet as critics lashed out at President Jacob Zuma’s scandal-ridden administration.
“For those who were hoping that Ramaphosa would return to the ANC as a new broom, sweeping the party clean with a barnstorming assault on its corrupt establishment, years of disappointment lay ahead,” wrote Ray Hartley, a journalist, in his book, “Ramaphosa: The Man Who Would Be King.”
But to Ramaphosa’s supporters, he was, as always, playing the long game — waiting to succeed Zuma and accumulate the power he needs to change South Africa.
Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa was born in 1952 in Johannesburg, to a police sergeant and a domestic worker. He became politically active in high school and was arrested on charges involving leading a student protest while in college. He served 11 months in solitary confinement in a Pretoria prison.
After earning a law degree, he became a labor organizer, turning the National Union of Mineworkers into the nation’s biggest trade union. He rubbed shoulders as easily with South Africa’s white oligarchs as with the men he represented.
“He used intimidation, charm, humor in rapid succession at the negotiating table,” Anthony Butler, a scholar and the author of a biography, ‘Cyril Ramaphosa,’ said recently in The Daily Maverick.
After the apartheid government lifted the ban on the ANC and freed Mandela in 1990, Ramaphosa, just shy of 40, became the party’s secretary-general. Under Mandela, he played a critical role in negotiating the peaceful transition from apartheid to democratic rule in 1994, and helped draft the new constitution.
Influential ANC leaders who had been in exile successfully pushed one of their own, Thabo Mbeki, to succeed Mandela. Ramaphosa left politics for business, though he remained closely involved with the ANC.
He quickly became one of the most prominent members of the new black elite. He sat on many corporate boards and acquired interests in many sectors — including mining, finance, South Africa’s McDonald’s restaurants and Coca-Cola bottling plants — where his high-level ties to the ANC proved useful.
His ties to a mining company, Lonmin, made him, in the minds of many South Africans, the symbol of an ANC elite that had lost touch with its base — a sellout, some said.
In 2012, Ramaphosa, as a member of Lonmin’s board, said a wildcat strike in the town of Marikana in which 10 people were killed was “dastardly criminal and must be characterized as such.” He added, “In line with this characterization, there needs to be concomitant action to address this situation.”
The next day, police intervened, killing 34 workers, in the worst case of official violence since the end of apartheid. Ramaphosa was accused of using his political influence to press for a police crackdown, though an official inquiry into the massacre eventually absolved him of guilt. “What Marikana gives us is an opportunity — it has come at great cost — to actually start afresh,” Ramaphosa said in an interview in 2012.
A few months after the massacre, having become one of the richest men on the continent, with a fortune estimated at $450 million, Ramaphosa re-entered politics full-time. He was overwhelmingly elected deputy president of the ANC, serving directly under Zuma.
When Zuma made him the nation’s deputy president in 2014, Ramaphosa became the heir apparent to South Africa’s presidency.
To many, Ramaphosa appeared to be biding his time, simply waiting for Zuma to complete his second and last term in office. More troubling to many was that Ramaphosa publicly supported his boss or stayed quiet, even when Zuma drew criticism for the kind of corruption Ramaphosa decries. In photos, he was often seen standing next to Zuma, beaming.
Mmusi Maimane, the leader of the main opposition Democratic Alliance, said Ramaphosa was “at best a silent deputy president, and at worst a complicit one.”
It was only last year — when it was clear Ramaphosa would not secure Zuma’s support to succeed him in the party and in the government — that Ramaphosa began publicly distancing himself from Zuma. When Zuma dismissed a widely respected finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, Ramaphosa criticized the decision as “unacceptable.”
After Ramaphosa’s election as party leader in mid-December, his camp began pressing to remove Zuma as the country’s president as soon as possible.
In recent weeks, Ramaphosa chipped away at Zuma’s support with an undeniable argument: The prospects of the party and its members would be better in a government led by Ramaphosa. Sticking with Zuma would be bad — for everyone — in the next elections in 2019.