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ANC congress: Business meets politics

Anti-apartheid hero-turned-businessman Cyril Ramaphosa offers South Africa talent and experience as newly-elected deputy leader of the ANC, but his bid for office showed that a new, black elite is struggling to rally the century-old party’s impoverished base.

Report by Reuters

Ramaphosa confirmed on Sunday he would challenge for the No 2 post at the Mangaung party conference and duly landed the position on Tuesday.

And clearly a man who retreated from public life to make a fortune in investments was able to fire up enthusiasm among the millions of poor disillusioned by broken promises in 18 years of majority rule.

Once a firebrand campaigner for miners’ rights, he hit the headlines this year as a mining company director who urged a crackdown on strikers before police killed 34 of them.

While few who know him well today are willing to discuss Ramaphosa on the record, people who worked with him in his heyday as a labour organiser and politician speak glowingly of his keen intellect and negotiating skills, which could serve his party as it fends off charges of corruption and incompetence.

Insiders at the ANC gathering said Ramaphosa had solid support and that President Jacob Zuma believed the 60-year-old lawyer would bring new moral authority as he dislodged deputy Kgalema Motlanthe, who mounted what most considered a doomed challenge to Zuma.

Though Ramaphosa sits on the ANC’s influential national executive committee, the man once tipped as a successor to Nelson Mandela has largely avoided public political engagements for years and some who know him wonder if he has lost his touch.

“That’s his fundamental problem within the ANC, a lack of street cred,” said one person who knows Ramaphosa well and has done business with his investment company, Shanduka Group.

“Is he going to be the guy to stand up in front of the man on the street and say: ‘We’ll sort it out’? I’m not so sure.”

Since a falling-out with then president Thabo Mbeki in 2001, Ramaphosa, who declined requests for an interview, has kept his political views largely to himself.
“Nobody knows what Cyril really believes,” said a former business associate.

Business empire
Those who recall the charismatic orator who built the National Union of Mineworkers (Num) into a major political force might not recognise the cautious business leader his associates now describe: “He is surprisingly quiet and non-confrontational on boards,” said the person who has done business with Shanduka. Ramaphosa benefited from black economic empowerment (BEE) and is now one of Africa’s richest men, with a fortune estimated at US$675 million by Forbes magazine.

He started Shanduka in 2001 to take advantage of BEE rules that obliged companies to add black shareholders to meet mandatory targets and win government contracts.

But while many South Africans complain the new black capitalist elite has betrayed the anti-apartheid struggle, some point to the continuing expansion of Ramaphosa’s business empire as evidence of real entrepreneurial savvy that can help the nation: “That’s a billion-dollar company that they built from nothing,” said the person who has done business with Shanduka.

It bought stakes, often with borrowed money, in some of the country’s biggest firms, including Standard Bank Group, Lonmin, and telecom MTN Group. In what some saw as an even more dynamic move, it took 70% in McDonald’s South Africa, while Ramaphosa himself acquired the rest. Last year, China’s sovereign wealth fund CIC took a 25% stake in Shanduka.

Mine killings
It was his directorship at Lonmin, whose platinum mine was the site of August’s Marikana massacre of strikers by police, that brought new scrutiny of Ramaphosa’s wide-ranging business interests: e-mails emerged showing he urged ministers to crack down on the very day before the shootings.

For a younger generation of miners — unfamiliar with his heroic leadership of a 1987 strike that consecrated him as an anti-apartheid icon — Ramaphosa is a sell-out to the bosses.

“Workers are not really passionate and enthusiastic about Cyril’s nomination,” said a trade union leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “He has business tentacles all over the place and has not really pursued working class interests.”

‘He exploited us’
In a rare live media appearance, a radio caller told Ramaphosa shortly after the Marikana killings: “Cyril, you have failed South Africa.” He replied quietly: “Marikana should not have happened. We are all to blame.”

He also had to apologise publicly after local media seized on his bid worth US$2 million at a livestock auction for a buffalo cow and calf — at a time when Lonmin was refusing miners’ demands for a wage rise to US$1 500 a month.

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