Tue. May 28th, 2024

With his suave, urbane demeanour, decades worth of political experience and significant role in the anti-apartheid movement, one would expect Cyril Ramaphosa to confidently land a second term as South Africa’s president.

But pollsters predict that in elections later this month, Mr Ramaphosa’s African National Congress (ANC) could get less than 50% of the vote for the first time in 30 years.

The 71-year-old’s first stint in office has been blighted by stubbornly high unemployment, persisting economic inequalities, widespread power cuts and corruption allegations.

It is a far from ideal state of affairs, especially for a man said to have coveted the presidential role since the ANC came to power in 1994.

Born close to the centre of Johannesburg in 1952, Mr Ramaphosa experienced the injustices of the racist system of apartheid early.

His family were forcibly moved to the township of Soweto when he was just a young child – they were among the millions of black South Africans relocated to distant, often economically deprived reserves by the authorities.

As a secondary school pupil Mr Ramaphosa “took his school teachers to task if he didn’t think they were working hard enough”, his biographer Anthony Butler.

“He was very confident and popular,” Prof Butler adds.

Mr Ramaphosa became involved in the black consciousness movement at university and as a result of his activism he endured two months-long stints in solitary confinement.

He crafted a reputation as a thorn in the side of white mine bosses in the 1980s, leading the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in one of the largest strikes in South Africa’s history.

He also joined the ANC and worked closely with Nelson Mandela to negotiate an end to minority rule, which came in 1994.

When Mr Mandela became South Africa’s first black president, Mr Ramaphosa harboured ambitions to become his deputy.

However it was not to be – he was overlooked for the more senior Thabo Mbeki.

Dispirited, Mr Ramaphosa took up the role of MP and played a leading role in drafting South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution, one of the most liberal in the world.

He later withdrew from the political centre-stage to become a business executive, despite being well-liked by the public.

South African President Nelson Mandela (R) and deputy President Thabo Mbeki (L) greets the crowd from a pick-up truck during an African National Congress rally at the Orlando stadium in Soweto, 28 March 1999.

Nelson Mandela (R) chose Thabo Mbeki (L) as his successor, rather than Mr Ramaphosa
“He was persuaded by Mandela and the others to take time out. He was a relatively young man,” Prof Butler says.

As white businessmen tried to accommodate him, Mr Ramaphosa acquired a stake in nearly every key sector – from telecoms and the media to beverages and fast food (he owned the South African franchise of the US chain, McDonalds) to mining.

His ventures were wildly lucrative – by 2015 he had become one of South Africa’s wealthiest politicians with a net worth of about $450m (£340m).

But Mr Ramaphosa’s reputation was tainted after police killed 34 workers in August 2012 at the Marikana platinum mine – the most deadly police action since white-minority rule ended.

With Mr Ramaphosa then a director in Lonmin – the multinational that owns the mine – he was accused of betraying the workers he once fought for, especially after emails emerged showing he had called for action against the miners for engaging in “dastardly criminal acts” – an apparent reference to their wildcat and violent strike.

A judge-led inquiry cleared him of involvement in the killings, but failed to totally scrub the stain from his legacy.

The unionist turned tycoon had just started his political comeback, after being chosen as the ANC’s deputy leader.

Two years later, he became South Africa’s deputy president, giving legitimacy to the scandal-hit presidency of Jacob Zuma.

But as Mr Zuma neared his two-term limit as ANC leader, Mr Ramaphosa entered the succession battle, positioning himself as the anti-Zuma candidate.

His pledges to fight corruption were widely seen as a dig at the man who remained his boss at the national level.

Mr Ramaphosa was the natural favourite for the top job, but the then president threw his weight behind his ex-wife and former African Union Commission chief, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

A bitter contest ensued, with Mr Ramaphosa eventually beating Ms Dlamini-Zuma to become ANC leader in December 2017.

Mr Zuma intended to stay on as South Africa’s president until the 2019 general election. But following intense pressure from ANC leaders – including Mr Ramaphosa – the embattled president was forced to resign.

After almost 25 years Mr Ramaphosa’s long-held dream was realised – MPs broke into song in parliament when it was announced he would succeed Mr Zuma as president of South Africa.

The new leader used his initial speech to make a stand against corruption – but shortly afterwards became embroiled in a series of of his own scandals.

In 2018, Mr Ramaphosa told parliament he had not received campaign donations from a controversial local company during his ANC leadership bid.

He later apologised, saying he had been misinformed when he gave the answer.

This admission undermined Mr Ramphosa’s own anti-corruption drive but years later the High Court dismissed the notion that he deliberately misled parliament.

In 2022, a long-awaited inquiry laid bare the looting of billions of dollars from South Africa’s state coffers during Mr Zuma’s presidency.

Mr Ramaphosa was implicated in the findings, with investigators concluding he should have done more to stop the rot while he was Mr Zuma’s deputy.

And just a few months later, before the dust had settled from that inquiry, Mr Ramaphosa became the focus of another corruption scandal.

In June, the president was accused of hiding a theft of $4m (£3.25m) in cash from his Phala Phala game farm.

While denying any wrongdoing, the president admitted that money hidden in his sofa had been stolen in 2020.

He said the cash totalled $580,000 (£460,000), not $4m, and that he had earned the $580,000 by selling buffalo. An independent panel of legal experts, headed by a former chief justice, said it had “substantial doubt” about whether such a sale actually took place.

His opponents – both inside and outside the ANC – called for him to resign over “Farmgate” while parliament weighed up whether or not to launch impeachment proceedings.

But the president ultimately won the backing of the ANC’s leaders and stayed on in the top job.

“He rode that out quite effectively,” says Paddy Harper, a journalist with South Africa’s Mail & Guardian newspaper.

“At this point, going into the election, [Farmgate] is not a major issue. I think issues like the water crisis, load shedding and unemployment are bigger threats”.

The ANC’s popularity has certainly suffered because of these issues, but political analyst Richard Calland tells the BBC Mr Ramaphosa has been a “steady, if not spectacular” president who inherited unfavourable conditions from the previous government.

“I think that he has been the leader we needed and the best available leader, despite his weaknesses, despite the fact that many of the metrics around the recovery of the economy and so on are still negative,” he says.

The ANC’s 2024 manifesto echoes this point of view. It highlights what the party considers to be positive moves made during Mr Ramaphosa’s term, such as South Africa bringing a genocide case against Israel to the United Nations’ highest court.

President Cyril Ramaphosa and ANC’s NEC members with Palestinian flags and each wearing a keffiyeh – 14 October 2023

Mr Ramaphosa has been a vocal critic of Israel’s war on Gaza
During the months-long war on Gaza, Mr Ramaphosa and his government have been unwavering in their opposition to the Israeli authorities.

In 2019 the president was praised for appointing a new cabinet in which, for the first time in the country’s history, half of all ministers were women.

From trade unionist to leader of one of Africa’s biggest economies, Mr Ramaphosa’s career has been a catalogue of contradictions, history-making moments and fierce battles.

The ANC’s current fight to maintain its popularity is a minor one, he has insisted on the campaign trail, reminding his compatriots that three decades ago he and the ANC brought an end to the scourge of apartheid.

He told reporters while touring the Eastern Cape region: “Thirty years of freedom and democracy is worthy of celebrating, so I’m saying let us be proud South Africans and celebrate our achievements… the achievements far outweigh the challenges that we have.

By Joy

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