Favourite son bears hopes of townships: John Carlin talks to Cyril Ramaphosa, man of the people
Sunday 02 August 1992
Cyril Ramaphosa, a disciple of Biko in his student days, stands out, even among the proudest of the liberation movement's proud leaders, as a man who took the martyr's message to heart. Among most blacks, even today, the attitude towards whites remains deferential, but the 39- year-old secretary-general of the African National Congress has earned respect in every sphere of South African life.
In a trawl among his political foes and allies the same words to describe him recurred: astute, shrewd, tough - and charming.
An executive in the mining business who engaged in constant battle with him during Mr Ramaphosa's nine years as general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) said his colleagues in the industry were unanimous that 'Cyril' was a man of high personal standing, a consummate negotiator with an acute sense of power and its limits. 'He's a heavy. No doubt about it. He's an absolute heavyweight.'
Within the ANC, Mr Ramaphosa and the 80-year-old Walter Sisulu are the only members of the National Executive Committee about whom never a bad word is spoken. The emotional high point of the ANC general conference in July last year was when Mr Ramaphosa was carried shoulder- high to the podium after his unanimous election to the second most powerful position in South Africa's biggest political organisation.
Even the Marxist hardliners, wary of his pragmatic approach, agree, that he is first in the line of succession after Nelson Mandela - and that one day he will be the president of South Africa.
Nothing could have been further from his thoughts in the early Eighties, when he was striving, in an almost single-handed battle against the forces of big business and the state, to build the NUM into a truly national force. A bearded young Quixote with a battered old Datsun, a brown leather jacket and a packet of Camels, he would travel from mine to mine, recruiting new members by day and sleeping rough by night. For two years that car was the union HQ. By 1987 he had built up membership from 6,000 to 340,000, all of whom he led out on strike that year for three weeks, in formidable defiance of the powers that be.
He could have opted for an easier life. A policeman's son, born in Venda, on the Zimbabwe border, he studied law at the University of the North and went on, after two lengthy periods of detention without trial, to obtain his articles. In an interview in his Johannesburg office on Thursday he explained, with the occasional Biblical turn of phrase of a man who cut his political teeth in the Student Christian Movement, why he had opted full-time for 'the struggle' instead.
He felt, he said, a moral imperative 'to sup from the cup of oppression'. 'The mines and working underground seemed to me to symbolise the real suffering and oppression that I felt many of our people were going through, and which I was immune to by virtue of being a township lad and having been to university.
'What motivated me to abandon the easy life of the legal profession was the realisation that legal practice was a mercenary type of work. I wanted out and I found my way into the union as a legal adviser. I . . . found my home there. Interacting with workers and ordinary people I found to be much more fulfilling.'
But even that work was easy compared to the job he has now. As mineworkers' leader, he had a clear constituency, a clear 'enemy' and a clearly defined purpose. Today he is the chief administrator of the ANC, chief negotiator and one of the three or four chief policy-makers.
'I recently said, and the miners were tremendously upset, that being general secretary of the NUM, compared to being secretary-general of the ANC, was like a Sunday-school picnic. They were not amused, but it's maybe 20 times tougher in terms of its intensity and the constituency that one has to relate to. In the ANC I have to relate to the various strata in the constituency, as well as the international community, and government, and the business community. The ANC is a multi-class type of organisation, an omnibus that takes whomsoever cometh.'
When the ANC bought its 22- floor Johannesburg headquarters from Shell last year, its senior executives took over the plush 10th- floor offices once occupied by the oil company's directors. It is an environment in which Mr Ramaphosa, more than most ANC leaders, moves easily. That he has the common touch, his days in the battered Datsun convincingly proved. But among his friends today he counts some of the bigwigs at Anglo American, the vast conglomerate that controls half of South African business. He goes trout-fishing with them.
Another passion is motor racing. For the Formula One Grand Prix at Kyalami he arrived by helicopter and lunched in the VIP suite. He enjoys good Scotch and, still more, a good bottle of red wine. A close friend described him as an excellent dinner companion, an easy conversationalist with a ready laugh. 'Most people don't smile these days,' the friend said. 'But he does.'
In private he is a measured, soft speaker; yet at the funeral for the 45 innocents massacred at Boipatong, he led the crowd in chants of 'Down with de Klerk]' and declared that the ANC would 'no longer tolerate the politics of murder'. His rage was genuine - he was the first senior ANC leader to visit the scene and saw, with his own eyes, the blood of children fresh on the ground. But his rage was also politically necessary. The ANC may be an 'omnibus', but its energy comes from the township youth, and it is to them that Mr Ramaphosa must respond, to prevent that anger, after 7,000 dead in two years, being turned against the ANC.
The organisation's new hard line, calling a general strike tomorrow and suspending the Codesa peace talks until the government acts to stop the township violence, has narrowed a dangerous gap that had opened up between the ANC leadership and the grassroots, between the negotiators and a people experiencing more suffering than at any point in 44 years of apartheid rule.
But Mr Ramaphosa, whose natural habitat is negotiations, has no interest in perpetuating confrontation. 'The danger . . . is that because the government has been intransigent, the negotiations option begins to become unpopular among the people. That is a serious danger.'
F W de Klerk has made plain his rejection of majority rule and seeks a 'power-sharing' dispensation accommodating the country's disparate interests and ethnic constituencies. That, Mr Ramaphosa agrees, is the heart of the dilemma: what kind of democracy will follow apartheid.
Mr Ramaphosa knows that compromise will, at some point, be necessary in this high-risk game. But he also acknowledges that this will be particularly difficult for the ANC. In a measure of how strong the pressure from supporters is on the leadership, he said: 'The ANC has a lot more to lose than the government has by going back to the negotiating table without the government having taken practical steps.'
It is becoming apparent that what South Africa needs most right now is political leadership that rises above party interests. The one question mark about Mr Ramaphosa that remains, said one of the business executives who sang his praises, is 'whether he has what George Bush calls 'the vision thing' '. He is as bright, as imposing, as likeable as any South African politician. Perhaps more so. He has done enough to be certain that Biko would have been proud of him.
For many years to come, South Africa will have to negotiate stormy seas. The ANC does not like to see the world in terms of individuals, but it is up to Mr Ramaphosa, perhaps more than any other black South African, to rise above the old antagonisms and put the nation first. The price of failure would be enormous.
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