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Cyril Ramaphosa: tomorrow's man? Although Thabo Mbeki's presidency of South Africa still has two and a half years to run, speculation is growing on who will succeed him in 2009. In the first of a series of articles looking at the various front-runners, Neil Ford profiles Cyril Ramaphosa, probably S Africa's currently most successful businessman.

With two and a half years of President Thabo Mbeki's second term of office still to run, South Africa is already looking ahead to the likely candidates for the subsequent presidency. While there has been some realignment of opposition political forces in recent years, nobody expects anything other than an African National Congress (ANC) victory, so the party's choice will be crucial. While other candidates, such as current Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and her troubled predecessor, Jacob Zuma, are being touted, the name of Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa is increasingly being mentioned as a future South African leader.


In discussing South African politics, it is important to point out one key difference between presidential elections in that country and in much of the rest of the world. Under the South African constitution, the 400 members of the National Assembly choose the president--it is not decided by direct suffrage. Members of the National Assembly are of course elected by popular vote under a system of party list proportional representation, so the National Assembly should reflect the will of the people as much as any other national parliament does.

Yet, accepting that the ANC is 99% certain to win control of the National Assembly, it should be recognised that potential presidential candidates need to secure the backing of the party in general, and candidates for the National Assembly in particular, rather than the nation as a whole. A politician's popularity with the general public may not be directly reflected in the level of his or her support within the party.

The most powerful person within any political party is usually its leader, so Thabo Mbeki's view will be crucial. However, it is generally acknowledged that Nelson Mandela recommended Ramaphosa as his successor but the hierarchy of the ANC overlooked his choice in favour of Mbeki. If the view of a man as popular as Mandela could be overlooked then there is no reason to suggest that Mbeki will personally be able to select his successor.

There have always been a number of different elements within the ANC, each with its own supporters, leaders and political stance. Tensions between the various factions have arisen on several occasions since the party gained power in 1994, as they do within any party, but the selection of a new leader is likely to intensify competition for influence.

With each passing year, the domination of the older generation that was born out of the struggle against Apartheid recedes a little more and the influence of the new party members, who are not steeped in the liberation struggle to the same extent, grows a little greater.

This may affect the party's choice of leader but it is not likely to greatly alter the political direction of the party. The ANC's original socialist policies have not been totally abandoned and for all the well-publicised problems in policy implementation, improving the standard of living of the many millions who had little chance of success until 1994 remains the central core of the party's strategy.

Yet it is impossible to overlook the ANC's acceptance of market economics since it gained power. If the party was able to adopt a more economically liberal stance during the 1990s, with the leaders of the liberation struggle still in control, it is not likely to suddenly lurch dramatically to the left, as the next generation gains in influence.

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The fact that the economic strategy of the past dozen years is now finally paying dividends, in terms of higher levels of growth and job creation, may make the choice of Ramaphosa more rather than less likely. When it became clear that Ramaphosa would not gain high office under Mbeki, he left the political arena to pursue a career in business, although he has retained his position on the ANC's national executive committee and has since become a huge success in a variety of sectors. Given the success of business friendly, trade orientated economics, who better to opt for than the most successful of the black empowerment business leaders?

When he withdrew from politics, Ramaphosa promised to return in a decade and Mandela commented that time was still on his side. It could never be argued that he has wasted that decade.

He set up Shanduka Group, which now has billion dollar investments in the property, financial services and energy sectors, and is deemed to be the largest black empowerment enterprise.

He is also chairman of Bidvest Group, Johnnic Holdings, and the MTN Group, while he has a number of non-executive directorships, including at Standard Bank. He advises Unilever and Coca-Cola in official positions and has gained some international political experience. He served as an arms inspector in the Northern Ireland peace process and became the first deputy chairman of the Commonwealth Business Council.

Even prior to Mbeki's rise to power, Ramaphosa could be described as a high achiever and has certainly had several successful careers. He has held the highest position--that of general secretary--in the South African trade union with the largest membership, the National Union of Mineworkers.

His role as the chief negotiator in the talks with the National Party that resulted in the dismantling of legal apartheid should also not be forgotten and he was elected secretary-general of the ANC in June 1991.

Talk of his return to full-time politics last peaked in 2001, when it was alleged that he was plotting to overthrow Mbeki within the ANC. It has been rumoured that Mbeki and Ramaphosa struck a deal about that time, whereby the current president would not oppose Ramaphosa if he sought to succeed him in 2009.

This has something of the fabled meeting between British politicians Tony Blair and Gordon Brown about it, when Brown allegedly agreed to stand aside in Blair's bid for the Labour Party leadership in return for the opportunity to follow him as prime minister.


Ramaphosa's rising star

However, it is difficult to determine the truth of the rumour and in any case, political views and allegiances change over time. It is now often claimed that Mbeki wants Mlambo-Ngcuka to succeed him and her move from the Energy Ministry to the Deputy Presidency has done nothing to dispel this.

An increasing number of South African political observers have noted Ramaphosa's rising star during the course of this year. South African writer William Gumede, the author of Thabo Mbeki and the struggle for the soul of the ANC, says: "When South African business tycoon Cyril Ramaphosa steps out in public, he is often besieged by South Africans of all colours and political stripes--ANC supporters and opponents alike. Most of them have only one question: is he going to make himself available as a candidate for the presidency of the ANC next year, and, if he wins, the leadership of the country in 2009?"

He adds: "The irony is that Mr Ramaphosa, despite his early bitter fallout with Mbeki over who should succeed Mr Mandela, shares the same economic and social policy views as Mr Mbeki, although he has a more inclusive, participatory and warmer leadership style."

Taking a very broad brush over the composition of the ANC, it is easy to discern three overlapping factions. Despite its various disputes over the reform programmes being implemented in a number of sectors, the trade union movement still comprises a powerful political bloc. The liberation era leaders are still also very powerful, while the ANC "young guns", who have firmly embraced market economics, are becoming increasingly strong.

Ramaphosa's background as a trade union leader gains him support on one count, while his business success means that he would be expected to take a pro-business line. The fact that he was not one of the liberation struggle exiles certainly counts against him but may not be enough to derail a concerted push for the presidency, particularly if he gains substantial support within the parliamentary party.

The general view of the South African media seems to be that his opponents have mentioned Ramaphosa as a likely candidate at this stage in an effort to derail any planned campaign.

It is argued that the first potential candidate to show their hand will fail because the party and the public will tire of them long before the ANC is ready to make its choice. Ramaphosa has denied any such ambition, in the tradition of almost all politicians. Yet putting party views to one side, he has a number of strengths to complement those that have already been mentioned.

He will be 56 at the time of the next election and certainly young enough to serve two terms of office. Ramaphosa also has criticised government policy on Zimbabwe and the causes of HIV/Aids--the two policies that have attracted most vehement overseas criticism of Mbeki. Finally, his great wealth could help to fund any ANC presidential campaign--a factor that should not be overlooked.
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Title Annotation:Profile
Author:Ford, Neil
Publication:African Business
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Nov 1, 2006
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