Saturday 19 January 2019

South Africa is 'watching' as former Mandela ally promises 'new beginning'

Cyril Ramaphosa Photo: REUTERS/Mike Hutchings
Cyril Ramaphosa Photo: REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

Krista Mahr

For Cyril Ramaphosa, the powerful African National Congress (ANC) negotiator who helped bring an end to apartheid in the 1990s, the last week may have been the fight of his political life.

As he sat in closed-door talks with South African President Jacob Zuma to map out the terms of the embattled leader's exit, Mr Ramaphosa was also drafting a plan for his own path - and long-held ambition - to the nation's presidency.

When Mr Zuma resigns, Mr Ramaphosa will immediately become the nation's acting president under South African law. Mr Ramaphosa is widely expected to be voted in as president by parliament in the coming weeks.

In December, after Mr Zuma's final term as leader of the African National Congress came to an end, Mr Ramaphosa secured the party's top job by a narrow margin, and has been shoring up support in the party since.

Mr Ramaphosa presented himself as the reform candidate, promising to crack down on corruption and get the nation's sluggish economy back on track.

Though he joined the scandal-prone Mr Zuma administration as deputy president in 2014, he has managed to steer clear of the corruption allegations that have dogged Mr Zuma and his allies in government in recent years and, ultimately, which are expected to lead to Mr Zuma's ouster a year before his second term as president is up.

"Cyril is going to be very keen that there will be a sharp break from what happened under Zuma," said Lawson Naidoo, executive secretary of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution. "Everyone will be watching to see what he does."

Mr Ramaphosa is not a newcomer to the rough and tumble of ANC politics. He has been a powerful figure in the party for decades. He was arrested twice as an activist fighting the oppressive apartheid system in the 1970s, and was the leader of a mining union in the 1980s.

In 1991, after a ban on the African National Congress was removed, Mr Ramaphosa became the party's secretary general and headed the ANC's negotiating team in talks with the white-minority government.

He was close to Nelson Mandela, who was reportedly grooming Mr Ramaphosa to take over from him as ANC president, which would have put him in position for the nation's presidency.

But Thabo Mbeki ended up winning the party's support to follow Mr Mandela. Mr Ramaphosa dropped out of politics not long after and started a successful business empire that made him one of the wealthiest citizens in the country today. He re-entered politics when he became ANC deputy president in 2014.

As Mr Zuma's tenure became more compromised, and splits within the ruling party deepened over the past year, Mr Ramaphosa headed a faction in the party that was favoured by investors, civil society, and liberally minded ANC members who hope that he will be able to turn the fortunes of the party and the country around.

"He is a solid, principled guy," says William Gumede, executive chairperson of the Democracy Works Foundation in Johannesburg. "He will be the first African leader who has actually run something outside politics."

At a speech on Sunday, Mr Ramaphosa honoured his former mentor on the day of Mr Mandela's centenary celebrations.

"As we emerge from a period of difficulty, disunity and discord, this centenary year offers us a new beginning," he said. "It offers us an opportunity to restore to our national life the values and principles for which he so firmly stood."

After a 20-year wait, Mr Ramaphosa finally has the Union Buildings in Pretoria in his sights. Now all eyes will be on him to see if he can live up to the faith that Mr Mandela once placed in him.

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