Who was behind Ramaphosa’s rise?

Cyril Ramaphosa’s rise to the deputy presidency of the ANC in 2012 was a surprise, even to many people who knew him well. The immediate circumstances in which he was elected made it even more surprising.

On August 16 2012, in the mining area of Marikana, police units gunned down 34 miners, many, perhaps most, in cold blood. As a major shareholder in Lonmin and a director, Ramaphosa was inextricably tied to these terrible events.

Many South Africans understandably assumed Ramaphosa’s political career was over. However, just four months later he was elected deputy president of the ANC at the movement’s 53rd national congress, held in Mangaung in December 2012.

Jacob Zuma’s campaign managers in 2012 faced real problems finding a suitable “top six” slate for the conference. Zuma’s best option was to retain his current deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, but Motlanthe refused to play ball. He expressed his disdain for the direction Zuma was taking the ANC and the country.

Motlanthe refrained from launching an open campaign for the presidency, and he also did not decisively rebut Zuma’s advances. His strategy left the Zuma camp bemused. In March 2012, nine months before the elective conference, the Sunday Times ran a story suggesting that Zuma wanted Motlanthe as his deputy — but only if Motlanthe agreed not to challenge him for the presidency.

Zuma’s lieutenants were also keen to establish greater market credibility. It was safe to assume Ramaphosa’s arrival would reverse some of the deterioration in investor sentiment. Ramaphosa could also potentially address some of the ANC’s wider electoral troubles. Luthuli House strategists felt the ANC would be damaged in the 2014 elections if it had Zuma as its sole figurehead.

One other factor, however, towers above all these: Ramaphosa’s prospects of eventually succeeding Zuma seemed to be exceptionally slight. It would be wrong to say he had absolutely no constituency, but he did not possess an organised network in the provinces to challenge for the succession.

Recall that Thabo Mbeki probably chose Zuma to be his deputy because he thought he could never become his successor. Mbeki’s first preference was apparently Mangosuthu Buthelezi. Subsequent events proved Mbeki wrong: Zuma was not so easy to sweep aside after all.

What, then, about Marikana? Here there is an apparent twist of history. In Zuma’s eyes, the shadow of Marikana made the case for Ramaphosa stronger. A presidential commission of inquiry appointed by Zuma, the Farlam commission, was already interrogating Ramaphosa’s role in those tragic events. It is easy to see how Zuma could use such an investigation to undermine his deputy at a time of his choosing. Such were the perverse implications of the Marikana massacre: by rendering Ramaphosa more deeply vulnerable, it helped bring about his rise.

Let us return again to Motlanthe. He was not blind to the overwhelming evidence that he could not win the presidency at Mangaung. By resisting calls to accept Zuma’s offer to stay on, but keeping channels of communication open, Motlanthe steered Zuma into the trap of replacing him with Ramaphosa.

Readers may recall a photo of Motlanthe taken by Greg Marinovich at the Mangaung conference, after Zuma had defeated Motlanthe and Ramaphosa had been elected as his deputy.

Motlanthe gave a victory sign. An anonymous informant — a longstanding member of the party’s national executive committee — told me he asked Motlanthe in 2007 why he was not challenging for the ANC presidency. Motlanthe said another leader — Ramaphosa — was “coming up”.

In his farewell address to parliament in 2014, Motlanthe said that “at some point, serving leadership must give way so that new blood, fired up with life-changing ideas, can take society to a higher level of development”. He quoted HG Wells’s advice that leaders’ ashes “should not choke the fire they have lit”. Motlanthe continued: “I would not let my ashes choke the verdant future that is beginning to assume some discernible outlines on the horizon.”

There is little doubt that Ramaphosa played a “long game” with regard to the ANC presidency. My suspicion is that his ambition was so deep and relentless that he was always trying to discern a route to the summit. But in politics you need others to work alongside you. Motlanthe and Mantashe were both vital parts of the collective that brought about Ramaphosa’s rise.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town. This column draws on his latest book: Cyril Ramaphosa: The Road to Presidential Power.

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