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Who is Cyril Ramaphosa?

The pragmatist President of South Africa

February 17, 2018 07:44 pm | Updated 07:44 pm IST

President of South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa smiles as he addresses MPs after being elected president in parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, February 15, 2018.

President of South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa smiles as he addresses MPs after being elected president in parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, February 15, 2018.

A veteran anti-apartheid campaigner, trade union leader and business tycoon — few world figures would rival the ambition, breadth of experience and steely resolve of South Africa’s new President. The 65-year old Cyril Ramaphosa’s elevation on Thursday to the nation’s top job became imminent ever since the African National Congress (ANC) voted him as party leader in December. The swift political transition witnessed since was propelled by judicial sanction to reopen innumerable cases against his predecessor Jacob Zuma, culminating in his resignation on Wednesday.

The nation’s Deputy President since 2014, Mr. Ramaphosa has seemed far more decisive as ANC leader, as evident from the recent reconstituted state power utility board and the raids on the residence of the controversial India-born Gupta brothers.

What role did he play?

Even as freedom dawned in South Africa in 1990, Mr. Ramaphosa was a force to reckon with, negotiating strategic bargains for workers in industrial conflicts. The National Union of Mineworkers he founded earlier and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) he helped to forge subsequently marked out his qualities of organisation and consensus-building.

Then, as ANC secretary-general, he served as chief negotiator to map the nation’s democratic transition. As chairman of the Constitution Assembly in 1994, the nation saw at work the architect of arguably among the world’s more liberal constitutions.

In the formulation of the Black Economic Empowerment programme around the turn of the century lay the beginnings of Mr. Ramaphosa’s own entrepreneurship. The sprawling business empire he established, stretching from mining, communications and investment earned him recognition as an icon of black power.

Equally, as one of the country’s wealthiest businessmen, given to a lavish life-style, questions began to surface about his true loyalties. As his name was cleared by the courts in the infamous 2012 murder of 34 workers in the Marikana platinum mine, he returned to full-time politics within months, as the ANC deputy president.

What are the challenges?

The biggest challenge before the new President is to salvage the ANC’s reputation, rebuild a broken economy and win the 2019 general election. Opposition parties which have already made inroads into the ANC’s traditional support base would be anxious to further consolidate those gains in the coming months. At the minimum, Mr. Ramaphosa would be expected to dispel any doubt that the new government will not grant amnesty to Mr. Zuma, or rescue ANC apparatchiks implicated in the distribution of official patronage. Equally vital would be the protection of prosecutorial independence that was severely undermined during the previous regime. These are essential steps to demonstrate a determination to combat corruption and regain public trust in the party’s commitment to nation-building.

How will he tackle them?

The new budget, to be unveiled next week, will be a pointer to the government’s economic priorities in a country that is just recovering from a deep recession and is still grappling with high unemployment. With strong moorings in the trade union movement and an instinct to make common cause with business, Mr. Ramaphosa has signalled a preference for pragmatism to populism.

Accordingly, attracting investment for the expansion of education and skill development could well form his immediate priorities, rather than the more contentious question of land redistribution without compensation. But then, the latter forms an important item on the ANC agenda, finalised at its recent congress. Deferring action, without necessarily jettisoning the issue, would once again test Mr. Ramaphosa’s capacity for building consensus within the party. A nation exasperated by unbridled corruption and nepotism in high places looks up to its new President with huge expectations. South Africa and the world will learn within a year whether Mr. Ramaphosa has begun to deliver.

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