Did Mandela want Ramaphosa to be his successor?

An excerpt from Anthony Butler, Cyril Ramaphosa (3rd edition, Auckland Park, Jacana, 2019) pp. 349-53.

Judge Dennis Davis recalls that Mac Mararaj and Ahmed Kathrada, both very close to Mandela, were confident that Mandela favoured Cyril as his successor – at least at some point. Mandela ‘knew Mbeki’s flaws and didn’t want him’.5 In the draft of his authorised biography of Mandela,

Anthony Sampson observed that ‘Mandela appeared often to favour Ramaphosa, and saw the advantage in having a non-Xhosa as his deputy’.

However, Mandela’s notes in the margin of the manuscript explain that he consulted widely among top ANC, SACP and union leaders ‘without indicating his own feelings’.6 It was likely that Ramaphosa’s relationship with Mandela had cooled. Mandela did not fully trust Cyril,7 and he may have become ‘disillusioned with Cyril’s naked ambition’.8

In the event, Mandela consulted many comrades he already knew would support Mbeki. One was Jacob Zuma, Mbeki’s ally and the man who had obstructed Cyril’s entry to the SACP, and who in turn was displaced by him from a leading role in the negotiations. Another was Thomas Nkobi, whose close friend Alfred Nzo had been humiliated by Ramaphosa in the election for secretary-general in 1991.9 Mandela also approached Walter Sisulu, who would have respected Tambo’s wishes, Kenneth Kaunda and Julius Nyerere, who could not have known Ramaphosa at all, and two or three union leaders unsympathetic to him.10

Of all those consulted, only Joe Slovo is known to have supported Cyril. Vic Allen believes that history would have turned out differently if Chris Hani were still alive. ‘I have no doubt that Hani would have confronted Mandela about his preference for Mbeki and that he would have persuaded Cyril to remain as SG of the ANC and build up a strong radical base in opposition to Mbeki.’11

The most likely interpretation is that Mbeki was in fact the better prepared man, and that after initially preferring Ramaphosa Mandela ultimately favoured him for the job. James Myburgh’s partly persuasive revisionist account suggests that ‘between 1994 and 1996, not only did Mandela make various decisions which almost guaranteed Mbeki’s ascent, but he was seen, both inside and outside the party, as favouring Mbeki as his successor. He could have always chosen someone else, or at least kept the contest open. He did neither … By 1999 Mandela may have regretted not choosing Ramaphosa over Mbeki in 1994 … but the contemporaneous evidence simply does not support the assertion that he preferred Ramaphosa at the time.’12

Mbeki certainly appeared a more prudent choice. As one observer remarked, ‘Mbeki is close to Jacob Zuma and together they are seen as the moderate wing of the national executive. Ramaphosa usually has Joe Slovo at his side.’13 Moreover, while Cyril had been embroiled in the negotiations, Thabo Mbeki had moved closer to Mandela, serving humbly as his speechwriter, and building on their mutual affection for Tambo.14 Mbeki continued to bask in the respect accorded to Tambo, and acquired seniority from the relationship. Mbeki was also a hard worker, an organisational fixer and a details man, who, like Mandela, had bravely advanced the case for negotiation while others were trapped in an irrelevant militaristic paradigm.

If Mandela broadly favoured Mbeki at the decisive moment, why was there such an elaborate show of consultation? One reason is that Mandela did not want to be seen to be engineering the rise of a fellow leader from the Eastern Cape, because this might raise dangerous perceptions of ethnic or at least regional favouritism. Certainly, such considerations must have played some role in Ramaphosa’s fate, in the indirect sense that he was not part of longstanding familial networks in the Eastern Cape.

Ramaphosa, like many others, also had difficulty engaging with the ethnic chauvinists of the Zulu royal court. The problem was not the IFP leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who may have been a ‘complex and frustrating interlocutor’,15 but was not a crude ethnic nationalist. According to Penuell Maduna, there was never any effort on Buthelezi’s part to exclude ANC negotiators on ethnic grounds.16 Rather, it was King Goodwill, who had a curious conception of the place of the tribe in political life. During his negotiations with the NP, he demanded a kingdom that embraced not just Natal, but also the southern Transvaal, some of the Eastern Cape and parts of the Free State. He was not impressed by FW de Klerk’s pertinent observation that the people living in those places might not want to be his subjects. The king pronounced himself willing to tolerate rule by whites, because they had defeated the Zulu in battle, but was unwilling to be ruled by the Xhosa. Moreover – and Steward emphasised that ‘the Venda dimension was very important in these discussions’ – one of the Zulu princes proclaimed that ‘We are not prepared to be ruled by the Venda dog Ramaphosa’.17

It was inevitably Afrikaners who offered the most uncomplicated interpretations of the implications of tribalism for Cyril’s leadership ambitions. Roelf Meyer, reflecting on the matter in 1996, conceded that it was difficult for an outsider to speculate successfully. However, he observed that ‘Thabo is coming from the tribe that forms the basis and still plays a dominant role in the organisation’.18 Tertius Delport’s less nuanced 1996 judgement was that ‘It’s ethnic politics again. I think he’s a Venda, you can’t have a Venda … He’s from a minority and not well liked, not even minority but seen as an inferior little tribe, whatever. So, Ramaphosa: never, never, never.’19

As we shall see later, such outsider judgements underestimated the capacity and determination of the ANC to strive for the equitable treatment of ethnic groups. From the perspective of the organisation and its leader, it would certainly have been desirable for Mandela’s successor precisely not to be a Xhosa-speaker.

On Bantu Holomisa’s view, Ramaphosa’s expectation that he would become Mandela’s deputy was probably built up by the old man himself. If Mandela was considering Cyril, he would certainly have ‘sounded out Cyril about this in advance’, perhaps giving him the impression that the job was already his.20 Only this course of events, according to Holomisa, can account for Ramaphosa’s ‘over-reaction’ when Mandela chose Thabo Mbeki instead. Cyril was offered a consolation prize – the post of foreign minister – but he declined it.21 Indeed he stormed off that same day, in what was widely believed to be a sulk, to fish with his old friend Rick Menell. (‘He arrived late, and caught a very big fish.’)22 Nthato Motlana derided this behaviour as ‘running off to stay with some white boy in the suburbs’.23

Cyril then boycotted Mandela’s 10 May inauguration, which, in Holomisa’s view, ‘was a little childish, but one must think what made him behave in this manner … His over-reaction was perhaps understandable.’24 Ramaphosa’s now largely estranged wife, Nomazizi Mtshotshisa, attended the event with veteran journalist Allister Sparks.25 So disappointed was Cyril that some close acquaintances believed he had decided to quit politics altogether. Roelf Meyer recalled that ‘Cyril’s disappointment first originated when he was not appointed deputy president, and he wanted then already to leave … Cyril asked [Mandela] in 1994 to leave and he denied him the opportunity to go … I don’t think Cyril would have been able or been prepared to serve under Thabo.’26

Ramaphosa’s decision not to accept a cabinet post, however, may not have been motivated by a desire to step aside from active politics. A more plausible explanation is that Ramaphosa wanted to concentrate his attention on internal ANC machinations. He was rumoured to have refused Mandela’s offer of a cabinet post on the grounds that he had not had the opportunity to do justice to the office of ANC secretary-general.27

Now that his commitment to the negotiations was behind him – or so he thought – he wanted the chance to do the job properly. Mandela was willing to concede on these grounds – and it must be remembered that the old man could probably have compelled him to serve in the cabinet had he wished.

Inevitably, a whispering campaign was immediately launched, suggesting that Ramaphosa was preparing to ‘go back to the branches’ to prepare a grassroots campaign for the leadership. He was shortly to be placed number two in the ANC’s complex list process, in effect ranking

him behind only Nelson Mandela in the party’s informal hierarchy. It was still conceivable that he might secure the post of ANC deputy president at the December 1994 ANC conference, and then rise to the position of ANC president – and so successor-designate to Mandela – at the movement’s 1997 conference.28


Chapter 18: Triumph and disappointment

1 Kader Asmal, author’s interview, Parliament, Cape Town, 13 December 2006.

2 Cyril Ramaphosa, interview with Padraig O’Malley, 28 February 1995.

3 Bantu Holomisa, author’s interview, Parliament, Cape Town, 5 September 2006.

4 Saki Macozoma, author’s interview, Melrose Arch, Johannesburg, 21 November 2006.

5 Dennis Davis, author’s interview, Constantia, 23 November 2018.

6 Anthony Sampson, Nelson Mandela: The Authorised Biography. New York, Vintage Books, 1999, p. 485.

7 Kader Asmal, author’s interview.

8 As Clive Menell, on his deathbed, told Theuns Eloff. Author’s interview, Stellenbosch, 13 December 2006.

9 Sampson, Mandela, p. 485; Oyama Mabandla, author’s interview, Sandton, Johannesburg, 12 September 2006.

10 William Mervin Gumede, Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC. Cape Town, Zebra

Press, 2005, pp. 32, 47; Oyama Mabandla, author’s interview; Mark Gevisser, ‘The Chief ’, Sunday Times, Johannesburg, 20 June 1999; James Myburgh, ‘Some notes on the idea that in 1994 Nelson Mandela preferred Ramaphosa as his successor’, available at <www.ever-fasternews.com>, accessed on 10 August 2006.

11 Vic Allen, personal communication, 6 September 2008.

12 Myburgh, ‘Some notes’.

13 Anton Harber, ‘Round one in the deputy president bout’, Mail & Guardian, 29 April 1994.

14 Kader Asmal, author’s interview.

15 Dave Steward, author’s interview, Plattekloof, Cape Town, 26 September 2006.

16 Penuell Maduna, author’s interview, Sandton, Johannesburg, 23 November 2006.

17 Dave Steward, author’s interview.

18 Roelf Meyer, interview with Padraig O’Malley, 25 November 1996.

19 Tertius Delport, interview with Padraig O’Malley, 9 May 1996.

20 Bantu Holomisa, author’s interview.

21 Kader Asmal and Bantu Holomisa, author’s interviews.

22 Rick Menell, author’s interview, Main Street, Johannesburg, 25 October 2006.

23 Nthato Motlana, author’s interview, Fourways, Johannesburg, 24 November 2006.

24 Bantu Holomisa, author’s interview.

25 Allister Sparks, telephone conversation with author, 19 April 2007.

26 Roelf Meyer, interview with Padraig O’Malley, 25 November 1996.

27 Anonymous informant close to Ramaphosa.

28 An anonymous informant close to Ramaphosa set out these versions of events.

29 Kader Asmal, author’s interview.

30 ANC, ‘Statement on necklacing’, issued by ANC Department of Information and Publicity, 27 April 1992.

31 Chris Barron, ‘Peter Mokaba: King of the young lions had a reputation for enjoying the good things, in life’, Sunday Times, Johannesburg, 16 June 2002.

32 Peter Mokaba and anonymous others, Castro Hlongwane, Caravans, Cats, Geese, Foot and Mouth and Statistics: HIV/AIDS and the Struggle for the Humanisation of the African, 2000,available at <www.chico.mweb.co.za/doc/aid.Castro.Hlongwane.doc>, accessed on 8 September 2004. The document was created on Thabo Mbeki’s computer for which reason he is often considered to be one of the probable authors.

33 ANC, Through the Eye of a Needle: Choosing the Best Cadres to Lead Transformation. Discussion document of the National Working Committee of the ANC, 2001. A member of the NEC informed me that Mokaba was the author of this document.

34 Anton Harber, ‘Feuds ’n debts shaped cabinet’, Mail & Guardian, 20 May 1994.

35 Vic Allen, personal communication with author, 20 January 2006.

36 Frans Baleni, author’s interview, Boksburg, East Rand, 25 October 2006.

37 Ibid.

38 James Motlatsi, author’s interview, Selby, Johannesburg, 31 August 2006.

39 Bantu Holomisa, author’s interview.

40 Helbron Vilakazi, author’s telephone interview, 1 September 2006.

41 Vic Allen, personal communication with author.

42 Widely known phrase; original source not identified.

43 Rams Ramashia, author’s interview, Waterfront, Cape Town, 31 October 2006. Nomazizi Mtshotshisa was eventually to become chairperson of Telkom and a prominent business woman in the new South Africa.

44 Anonymous source.

45 Gaye Davis, ‘How potential Mandela successor was edged out’, Mail & Guardian, 19 April 1996.

46 Hassan Ebrahim, Soul of a Nation: Constitution-Making in South Africa. Cape Town, Oxford University Press, 1998.

47 Ibid.

48 Enver Surty, author’s interview, Parliament, 5 December 2018.

49 Kader Asmal, interview with Padraig O’Malley, 15 May 1996.

50 Cyril Ramaphosa, interview with Padraig O’Malley, 28 February 1995.

51 Roelf Meyer, interview with Padraig O’Malley, 24 March 1995.

52 Enver Surty, author’s interview, Parliament, 5 December 2018.

53 Conor O’Mahony, ‘There is no such thing as a right to dignity’, International Journal of Constitutional Law, 10: 2, 2012, pp. 551–74.

54 Anthony Butler, ‘Trousers of Zuma must be declared a Key Point’, Business Day, 25 May 2012.

55 Cyril Ramaphosa, interview with Padraig O’Malley, 26 May 1994.

56 Hassan Ebrahim, Soul of a Nation, p. 196.

57 Ibid., p. 207.

58 Kader Asmal, author’s interview.

59 Cyril Ramaphosa, interview with Padraig O’Malley, 24 May 1996.

60 FW de Klerk, The Last Trek: A New Beginning. Basingstoke, Pan Macmillan, 2000, p. 358.

61 Hassan Ebrahim, Soul of a Nation, p. 220.

62 Nelson Mandela, ‘Statement on the future of comrade Cyril Ramaphosa’, Cape Town, 13 April


63 Gaye Davis, ‘How Cyril was edged out by Thabo’, Mail & Guardian, Johannesburg, 19 April 1996.

64 Oyama Mabandla, author’s interview.

65 South African Press Association, ‘Holomisa has signed his own death knell in the ANC: Tshwete’. Johannesburg, SAPA, 1 August 1996.

66 Ibid.

67 Sowetan, 11 November 1996.

68 Newton Kanhema, ‘Mandela drops Mbeki bombshell’, The Star, 11 November 1996.

69 Sampson, Mandela, p. 529. Mbeki briefly made a show of considering Mangosuthu Buthelezi for this position.

70 ANC, ‘Cyril wants to transform the economy’, Mayibuye, 7: 6, July 1996.

71 Ibid.

72 Nthato Motlana, author’s interview, Fourways, Johannesburg, 24 November 2006.

73 Quoted in the Mail & Guardian, Editorial, 19 April 1996.

74 Ndoda Madalane, author’s interview, Morningside, Johannesburg, 22 November 2006.

75 Nthato Motlana, author’s interview.

76 Vic Allen, personal communication, 6 Septmber 2008.

77 Ibid.

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