He grew up in Soweto, Johannesburg’s notoriously impoverished segregated township, and became one of South Africa’s richest men, but Cyril Ramaphosa’s toughest years may lie ahead.
A protégé of Nelson Mandela, Ramaphosa, 65, will become president if he can persuade the scandal-tarnished incumbent, Jacob Zuma, to stand aside. South Africa’s Parliament postponed Zuma’s state of the nation address on Thursday but the president has refused to relinquish his grip on power.
But it is not just politics that Ramaphosa, a former labor organizer, will need to clean up. South Africa is beset by high unemployment and low growth while one of its largest cities, Cape Town, is likely to run out of water within weeks.
In fixing the country, Ramaphosa will first need to unite his ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), which has become factionalized since the golden era of Mandela’s release from prison and the end of white minority rule.
“This was the party of liberation, of Nelson Mandela, and under Zuma it has fallen so far it is unrecognizable from the party Mandela led,” said Pieter du Toit, a journalist who co-wrote “Enemy of the People: How Jacob Zuma Stole South Africa and How the People Fought Back.”
“The hope is Ramaphosa will turn that around,” du Toit said.
While Ramaphosa will need his experience as a lawyer and businessman, he may rely even more on negotiating skills earned during his years as an apartheid-era union leader.
He has already ousted Zuma from the leadership of the ANC, but not yet from the country’s presidency. Zuma was conducting business as usual throughout the week, his office said, despite reports of his imminent resignation.
The ANC’s National Executive Committee had been scheduled to discuss “management of the transition” on Wednesday but postponed the meeting after “fruitful and constructive engagements” between Zuma and Ramaphosa; a photo of them smiling at a Cabinet meeting was posted on a government Twitter feed.
President Jacob Zuma and Deputy President Ramaphosa during the meeting of Cabinet Committees currently underway in Cape Town pic.twitter.com/0MEAFvxwOC— South African Government (@GovernmentZA) February 7, 2018
“I am aware that the uncertainty surrounding the position of the head of state and government is a cause for concern among many South Africans,” Ramaphosa later tweeted. “This is understandable. We will be able to communicate further on President Zuma’s position as President of the Republic once we have finalized all pertinent matters.”
South African media said Sunday that the party’s national executive will meet on Monday as the nation awaits word on Zuma’s fate.
Ramaphosa’s business reputation — Forbes estimates his wealth at $675 million — has already brought the country some much-needed economic stability. Since he took over the ANC from Zuma in December, South Africa’s currency has strengthened and business leaders are more optimistic about the country’s prospects, according to analysts.
“Part of the hope and expectation is around roles he’s had in the past,” said Chris Vandome, a research analyst with the Africa program at Chatham House, a British think tank.
“There will be easy gains [at first] for Ramaphosa on corruption,” Vandome said. “He will have to show the party that he has a plan and that they can deliver inclusive growth to everyone rather than just those at the top.”
Rafiq Raji, chief economist at Macroafricaintel, a research consultancy based in Nigeria, said: “The investment and business community have confidence in him and his abilities. … They see him as more predictable and more sensitive to their interests.”
Zuma last month agreed to establish an inquiry into the extent of “state capture” in South Africa — corruption so endemic that it pervades a country’s laws and institutions — but graft allegations have persisted throughout his almost nine years in office. In 2016, he was forced to pay back some of the millions in state money he used to upgrade his private residence.
In a separate case, Zuma’s lawyers last week submitted arguments to the government about why he shouldn’t be prosecuted for corruption charges tied to an arms deal two decades ago. The charges had been thrown out but a court reinstated them last year.
“The party has been slowly but steadily corrupted since Mandela left.”
Ramaphosa’s business interests have also attracted attention. He was the main architect of black economic empowerment after the end of white minority rule, but has also been one of its main beneficiaries, weakening his claims to be able to tackle cronyism.
Once the leader of the powerful National Union of Mineworkers, he later became nonexecutive director of Lonmin, the U.K.-based platinum corporation, and briefly ran the South African subsidiary of McDonald’s. He is married to the sister of the country’s first black dollar billionaire, Patrice Motsepe.
“The ANC has dominated for so long that it went unchallenged, and they became complacent,” said du Toit, the author. “It was seduced by power and access to resources. The party has been slowly but steadily corrupted since Mandela left.
“If he wants to retain support of the ANC base, he will need to dish out patronage,” Raji said of Ramaphosa. “He will also need to appeal to populists who might otherwise switch to more left-leaning parties such as the Economic Freedom Fighters.”
Ramaphosa’s childhood growing up in Soweto, which saw decades of deadly apartheid-era violence, may help him understand the party’s popular base, a group who may be tempted to switch to more left-leaning parties.
But Raji, the economist said he is still unlikely to recreate the unity of the Mandela era.
“There isn’t anyone around who comes close to the stature of Nelson Mandela,” Raji said. “He was in a class of his own. I don’t think South Africans should even aspire to have another Mandela.”
In speculating about what kind of leader South Africans should aspire to, Raji said ideally the person would have the education of Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded Mandela as South Africa’s second president, as well as “the grass-roots appeal of Zuma and the negotiation and business acumen of Ramaphosa.”
“While Ramaphosa falls short on two of those qualities, he is a technocrat,” Raji said. “He is the safest pair of hands at the moment.”