Threatened with a motion of no confidence, South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma announced his resignation with immediate effect on 14 February. Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa assumed the role of acting president and, the following day, was elected unopposed to succeed Zuma as president of South Africa.
Since his youth Ramaphosa has been involved in the political scene; he was detained in 1974 and 1976 for anti-apartheid activities, the latter for a duration of 11 months in solitary confinement. Later, he became an active trade unionist, forming the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (CSATU). Ramaphosa was General Secretary of the CSATU until he stepped down in 1991, when he was elected as Secretary General of the African National Congress (ANC).
Ramaphosa was seen as a protégé of Nelson Mandela, and arranged for his release whilst chair-person of the national reception committee. Ramaphosa was Mandela’s close aide and as Secretary General of the ANC; he acted as a chief negotiator in historic talks which brought the apartheid to a close. Many people assumed that Ramaphosa would be the one to succeed Mandela, even Mandela himself expressed his desire for Ramaphosa to take over as ANC leader. However, the party sided with Thabo Mbeki who later became South Africa’s second president. This grounded Ramaphosa’s political ambitions and he left the political scene for a new life in the private sector.
Ramaphosa swiftly became one of South Africa’s wealthiest businessmen and in 2017 his net worth was an estimated $550 million. He accumulated his wealth through the various directorships he obtained over the years, but he also founded Shanduka Group, an investment firm which specialisises in sectors including energy, banking, real estate, telecoms, insurance, and natural resources. Ramaphosa had resigned from all of these positions by the time of his ascension to the deputy presidency.
Ramaphosa re-joined the political scene in December 2007, when he was elected to the ANC National Executive Committee. In that year he was also included in Time 100, an annual list of 100 of the world’s most influential people. With the support of then President Jacob Zuma, Ramaphosa joined the race for deputy president of the ANC, later winning with 3,018 votes to Mathews Phosa’s 470 votes and Tokyo Sexwale’s 463 votes. On 26 May 2014, Ramaphosa was sworn in as deputy president of South Africa, under the Zuma presidency. He assumed the role of leader of government business in the National Assembly, and a month later he was appointed as chairman of the National Planning Commission.
2017 was the year of the ANC presidential election and, with the Zuma ineligible to run for the 2019 general election after exhausting South Africa’s two term limit, it became a significant event for the future of the country. The reason being is that the ANC has been the dominant political party in post-apartheid South Africa, having won every general election since Nelson Mandela’s election in 1994. Essentially, the leader of the ANC is the future president of South Africa.
Ramaphosa launched his campaign for the critical position in April 2017, under the slogan ‘#CR17 Siyavuma’. The Zulu word ‘siyavuma’ directly translates to ‘we agree’. Competing against Ramaphosa was Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, one of Zuma’s ex-wives. Zuma had hoped for his ex-wife to succeed him in the presidencies of both the ANC and South Africa as it would have allowed him to retain his influence over the party and the state, not to mention immunity against on-going criminal prosecution. However, Zuma’s dream was shattered after Ramaphosa, who called for an investigation into state capture and centred his campaign around anti-corruption, won the popular vote with 2440 votes to Dlamini-Zuma’s 2261.
Firmly believing that South Africa’s economic problems are rooted in the skyrocketing levels of corruption, Ramaphosa has focused his political career on combatting corruption. In his maiden speech as ANC president, he pledged to “confront corruption and state capture” and to “restore the credibility of public institutions”, highlighting unwarranted political influence held by state-owned enterprises and law enforcement officials. However, critics of Ramaphosa have accused him of hypocrisy, calling into question his business ethics. Most of these controversies arose in 2012, the year he was elected deputy president of the ANC, although he has never been indicted for criminal activities in these events. Ramaphosa hopes to target wealth inequality, yet he bid up to R19.5 million for Africa’s largest buffalo, earning him the sobriquet “The Buffalo”.
Some also see him partly responsible in the Marikana massacre of August 2012, where police fired upon striking miners – most being struck from behind. As revealed during the Marikana Commission, Ramaphosa was solicited by Lonmin, the company in ownership of the mine, to coordinate a response against the protesters through the use of his connections to Police Minister Nathi Mthethw.
In his first State of the Nation Address as president, Ramaphosa focused on the importance of maintaining the legacy of Nelson Mandela. If he is able to maintain the trust of the people, and avoid succumbing to the temptations that corrupted his predecessor, South Africa will recover from its shattered state and begin to move forwards rather than backwards.