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South Africa Elects Cyril Ramaphosa As Its New President

Feb 15, 2018
Originally published on February 16, 2018 9:11 am

Cyril Ramaphosa has waited for this moment a long time.

The 65-year-old tycoon was elected president of South Africa by parliament Thursday, an elevation that was guaranteed after Jacob Zuma resigned the presidency the night before.

Following Thursday's vote in the National Assembly, Ramaphosa took words of praise from supporters and overt electoral threats from opposition leaders — then stood at the same podium where, 22 years ago, he shepherded the ratification of South Africa's constitution.

Ramaphosa promised to "continue to improve the lives of our people," and said he would "work very hard to try to not disappoint the people of South Africa."

It was a clear indication he plans to take the country in a different direction from his predecessor. On Friday night, Ramaphosa will deliver his first State of the Nation Address, which he said would outline his plans to fight corruption in the country.

It's a speech he will have waited decades to give.

'The remainees'

Ramaphosa "represents the struggle of remainees," said political analyst Somadodo Fikeni, using the South African term to describe African National Congress veterans who were neither exiled, such as former President Thabo Mbeki, nor sentenced to prison on Robben Island, like the late Nelson Mandela. Zuma was both a Robben Island political prisoner and an exiled leader.

With the ANC banned in South Africa and operating from headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia, remainees were left to fight apartheid on the ground in the few ways they could.

Ramaphosa founded the National Union of Mineworkers, which organized the poor laborers who provided the backbone of the apartheid economy.

As union leader, he led "hard debates" with mining executives that led to "violent strikes," said Ray Hartley, author of the new biography Ramaphosa, The Man Who Would Be King.

Hartley said those talks catapulted Ramaphosa to the position of chief negotiator during talks with the apartheid government ahead of the transition to democracy. "He was probably the only senior leader who actually had real experience of what it means to use the negotiation process effectively to get your goals achieved," he said. "And Nelson Mandela noticed that."

Crafting the constitution

Ramaphosa was Mandela's chosen successor, but when he lost the race for deputy president to Mbeki, those plans were scrapped.

According to Hartley's book, Ramaphosa has said the reason was that at 44 years old, "a number of people felt that I was still too young."

Others, Hartley said, didn't want Ramaphosa to assume the role as Mandela's No. 2 because he was a remainee and did not climb the ANC ranks in exile.

After losing the race, Ramaphosa was "deployed" to the private sector, where he began amassing a fortune worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Ramaphosa benefited from both key government contacts and new laws that required businesses to partner with black South Africans.

Critics of Black Economic Empowerment programs deride them as giveaways to a politically connected few, who are dismissed as the "black billionaire class."

In 1996, while working in the private sector, Mandela summoned Ramaphosa to help craft the country's constitution, which is now considered among the most progressive in the world.

Ramaphosa heeded Mandela's call. "His strength is that he knows when to act," Hartley said.

Urging Parliament to pass the bill that would ratify the country's new constitution, Ramaphosa delivered an impassioned speech in defense of universal human rights.

He called the document "South Africa's birth certificate."

"When we vote today to adopt the constitution before us, we will be giving life to a new nation. A nation of free and equal people," Ramaphosa said. "Our country, our people, will indeed have come of age when we vote for this constitution."

Just two years into democracy, it was not a foregone conclusion that the country would adopt a bill of rights enshrining universal voting rights. But it did.

From striker to strike-breaker

Ramaphosa sat on dozens of corporate boards. He incorporated Shanduka Group to manage his assets, which included the entire McDonald's franchise for South Africa.

In 2012, as a board member of the mining firm Lonmin, he urged police to intervene and stop an illegal strike after 10 miners were killed. Emails revealed he called the strike "dastardly criminal."

The next day, police shot and killed 34 miners. Dozens more were injured in what amounts to the deadliest act of violence in post-apartheid South Africa. Ramaphosa long has claimed innocence; that he was using his political connections with the minister of police to stop the violence from spreading.

An investigating commission cleared Ramaphosa of wrongdoing, but to opponents, such as the upstart Economic Freedom Fighters, a leftist political party, Ramaphosa had sold out. The union organizer sided with management.

Ramaphosa has said he would return to Marikana with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the late president's divorced wife, to apologize, but he has yet to do so.

Master of the long game

Ramaphosa re-entered politics when he became the ANC's deputy president in late 2012. The position put him in line to be deputy to President Jacob Zuma, and Zuma's likely successor.

He has an "excellent sense of timing," said Fikeni, the political analyst.

Ramaphosa's supporters say he's the master of the long game. They say business was not his passion, and that he always intended to return to politics when the time was right.

Spurned by the party elders 22 years ago, he now has full control of the ANC and the government. When he was elected party leader in December, his margin of victory over Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma — a former government minister and Jacob Zuma's ex-wife — was smaller than some anticipated. But since then, he's consolidated his power.

The task ahead is to manage the party and government, said Dirk Kotze, a political scientist at the University of South Africa.

"In 2004, the ANC had about 70 percent" support in the country, Kotze said. "Now it's about 54, 55 percent."

The economy likely is pulling that number down: The unemployment rate is 28 percent, and South African society remains one of the most unequal in the world.

"For all of his strengths and for all ... the things that he could do that Zuma couldn't do, there are severe structural problems here in this country," says biographer Hartley.

The ANC has won an outright majority in every national election since apartheid ended in 1991. Each of the country's five presidents has been a member of the party. But the 2019 elections are no guarantee, and if the ANC does not win a 50 percent majority, it will be forced to form a coalition for the first time.

Many Ramaphosa supporters and even some former Zuma allies have blamed Zuma for the party's woes.

Tebogo Moabelo, 35, an attorney in Pretoria, says the new president has at least one thing going for him: "He's not Jacob Zuma."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Hours after Jacob Zuma's dramatic resignation as South Africa's president, the country has a new leader. Cyril Ramaphosa accepted his election by Parliament today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT CYRIL RAMAPHOSA: I'll seek to execute that task with humility, with faithfulness and with dignity as well.

KELLY: The former union organizer-turned-tycoon has long been a prominent figure in South African politics. And he has been waiting for this job for decades, as Peter Granitz reports from the capital, Pretoria.

PETER GRANITZ, BYLINE: Cyril Ramaphosa was born 65 years ago in the black township of Soweto. He became a leading anti-apartheid activist, union leader and one of the nation's richest men before becoming president. His promise to South Africans, made in comments before Jacob Zuma's ouster as president, is to lead the country Nelson Mandela envisioned at the end of white rule in 1994.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAMAPHOSA: In which all our people have jobs, all our people have houses, all our people have food.

GRANITZ: What Ramaphosa is taking on, though, is a divided governing party, an unemployment rate of nearly 28 percent, and a society that remains one of the most unequal in the world. Biographer Ray Hartley says while Ramaphosa is up to the task, it'll be a challenge.

RAY HARTLEY: For all of his strengths and for all of his - the things that he can do that Zuma couldn't do, there are severe structural problems here in this country. There is a vast disparity in wealth. And that is colored by race.

GRANITZ: Hartley says Ramaphosa thrives on bringing people together as he did when he led the National Union of Mineworkers through protracted strikes in the 1980s. That experience proved useful during the transition to democracy and end of apartheid when the ANC tapped Ramaphosa to lead the talks with the white minority government. Ramaphosa won those negotiations for the black majority and helped write what is considered one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. Speaking on the floor of Parliament in 1996, he said the central tenets of a just and equitable society remain uncompromised.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAMAPHOSA: For freedom is nonnegotiable.

GRANITZ: Ramaphosa was thwarted in his attempts to lead the party, so he left politics and made a fortune in the private sector. Among his businesses was mining. And when an illegal strike occurred at a mine at which he owned shares, he used his connections to have police shut it down. They did so with violence. Thirty-four miners were killed outside the town of Marikana. An investigation determined he was not responsible for the police reaction, but the issue will not fade. Political analyst Somadoda Fikeni says Ramaphosa may use the presidency to close the gap that's grown between him and his traditional base of workers.

SOMADODA FIKENI: He may try very hard, sometimes overcompensate, to demonstrate that I have recovered my roots.

GRANITZ: Corruption scandals under former President Zuma eroded the African National Congress' popularity to its lowest levels. To retain power next year, it will need to attract disaffected voters such as Gloria Sepogaone. She's black, middle class and lives in Pretoria, which the ANC lost in 2016.

GLORIA SEPOGAONE: So the last two votes I didn't vote because of J.Z. Yeah.

GRANITZ: By J.Z. she means Jacob Zuma. But Sepogaone says she believes Ramaphosa will attract needed investment to South Africa, and that's enough to bring her back to the ANC. For NPR News, I'm Peter Granitz in Pretoria.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATT CAPPY'S "ROSE LANE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.