Once a revered miners’ union leader, he sits on the board of, and has a stake in, Lonmin, the platinum company that employed those killed, putting him in an uncomfortable position as his role at the London-listed firm and his wealthy lifestyle came under critical scrutiny.
Now it is debate over his political ambitions that has thrust him back into the headlines, following his nomination to run as President Jacob Zuma’s deputy in the ANC, which opens a five-yearly elective conference on Sunday. If Ramaphosa accepts his nomination, the urbane 60-year-old will become embroiled in what is looking increasingly like an ugly battle for the soul of the ANC.
Kgalema Motlanthe, deputy president, has already signalled his intention to challenge Zuma, as well as accepting nominations to retain his post as party deputy. That means that if Ramaphosa does enter the contest, he will pit himself against a respected ANC comrade and fellow former unionist when delegates vote on who fills the party’s top posts for the next five years.
With Zuma dogged by criticism that under his watch the ANC has been tarnished by mounting corruption and patronage, coupled with concerns that the country is drifting as social pressures rise, Ramaphosa has a CV to add credibility to his administration.
Yet the question is whether the businessman – a cautious player in the political arena – would gamble and contest at a time when the ANC is blighted by factionalism and in danger of seeing its support fall sharply at 2014 national elections.
The upside would be that victory would put him in pole position to lead the ANC – and as a consequence Africa’s largest economy – once Zuma steps down.
The president is tipped to win his battle, despite the ANC’s woes and personal controversies. But the risk for Ramaphosa is that he attaches himself to a faction that oversees the decline of the 100-year-old liberation movement, and by association, sees his own image tainted.
“It’s a very difficult moment for Ramaphosa,” says William Gumede, an associate professor at Wits University. “He’s a very analytical person. He would be thinking: ‘can I really make a difference as a deputy if people inside and outside the ANC are against Zuma’.”
Ramaphosa, described by some commentators as the best president South Africa has never had, has not commented on the leadership.
Respected in the political and corporate worlds, Ramaphosa has impeccable credentials for a top ANC post. He led the NUM during a 1987 miners’ strike that was a defining event in the anti-apartheid struggle. He then headed ANC negotiations with the apartheid regime in the run-up to the 1994 election and was instrumental in drafting South Africa’s first democratic constitution.
He was also touted as frontrunner to be Nelson Mandela’s deputy during his presidency, but ANC internal politics meant that Thabo Mbeki filled the position.
Mandela revealed years later that he would have preferred Ramaphosa as his number two. Instead, Ramaphosa left politics and successfully built a business empire, benefiting from the ANC’s black empowerment policy intended to redress huge economic imbalances created by decades of discrimination.
Ramaphosa founded Shanduka, which has wide range of investments, is chairman of MTN, and has directorships with groups ranging from Standard Bank to SAB Miller.
Now South Africans wait to see if he will swap the boardroom for the bear-pit that is ANC politics and be prepared for the scrutiny that would surely bring. An inquiry into the police shooting of the miners – where Ramaphosa’s role has already been questioned – still has weeks to run.
“I think he will acknowledge that it does come with some risks, but I think his long standing strategic objective has always been the top job,” says a business associate who predicts he will contest the ANC elections. “This won’t be an end in itself. But it’s a means to get to the presidency, to get the keys to the Union Buildings [the official seat of government]. That’s what it’s about.”
— Financial Times