ANC's Mr Fixit lured by business career

The incarnations of Cyril Ramaphosa have been many: student firebrand, union hard-hat, political negotiator, secretary-general of the ANC and president of the assembly drawing up a constitution for South Africa.

In few weeks, however, Mr Ramaphosa, 43, will be leaving politics for business, a move greeted with both enthusiasm and dismay. Many considered him a main contender for Nelson Mandela's mantle when he leaves office in 1999; Mr Ramaphosa's rival, Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, is now undisputed crown prince of the ANC and almost certainly South Africa's next president.

Officially, Mr Ramaphosa's decision to leave parliament next month for a position in New Africa Investment Limited (Nail) - one of the few black conglomerates listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange - is being touted as move to strengthen black business.

Pundits are also saying it could lead to "the biggest advance in black empowerment in South African history". Nail is trying to wrest from Anglo American Corporation a 48-per-cent stake in the Johnnic company, which has majority shares in a firm which owns South Africa's biggest weekend paper, the Sunday Times, plus Business Day and the weekly Financial Mail. A successful bid would for the first time place some of the most important media interests in black hands.

What Nail needed was a tough negotiator, a job well suited to Mr Ramaphosa, who in 1993 spearheaded the ANC's negotiations with the last white-minority government.

Asked about his latest move, he said: "It used to be taboo to even talk about people on the left ... getting into business. But the realities we are now dealing with have brought a completely new perspective. It dictates that we should play a key role in the economy - have real clout."

But there may be reasons other than a desire to influence the business scene which led Mr Ramaphosa to leave politics. ANC sources say Mr Mbeki outmanoeuvred him to remain Mr Mandela's favourite to succeed him.

Sources close to Mr Ramaphosa have indicated that by leaving the government now, he may be planning for the longer term: seeking to expand his base of support, to stage a political comeback for 2004.