Ramaphosa: an enigma continua

Posted on December 2, 2010


Cyril Ramaphosa
by Anthony Butler (Jacana/James Currey)

(First published, February, 2008)

Cyril Ramaphosa remains one of the most popular figures on the South African political scene.  Yet little is known about the man and his background and certainly in recent years, he has not sought the limelight.

In fact, throughout his very active career on the trade union and political front, he has never obviously sought to promote himself.  Yet he has become, apparently propelled by circumstance, a household name.  His was clearly a life crying out for biographical detail and British-born University of Cape Town academic, Anthony Butler, decided to undertake the task.

Ramaphosa was not interested.  In fact, he was openly hostile to the idea of a biography, whether by Butler or anyone else.  Unlike Mark Gevisser, who was at least given 20 hours of President Thabo Mbeki’s time for interviews and solicited email responses from his subject, Butler was rebuffed. However, he notes that Ramaphosa did not discourage anyone from speaking to him and did not deliberately obstruct his venture.

But he was not able to prise anything from his subject,  It shows.  As Butler himself notes toward the end of this volume, Cyril Ramaphosa remains virtually all things to all people of his acquaintance

In this way, he can be seen by trade unionists as a union man with the interests of the workers at heart, by communists as a sympathiser, by social democrats and humanists  as one of their own and by big business as a pragmatist who has accepted the ascendancy of capitalism.

And Butler goes on to admit:  “[Ramaphosa’s] deeper belief and opinions remain hidden.  People who have known him for many years have no idea what his position might be on central aspects of economic or foreign policy.”  In short, and to paraphrase a favourite ANC slogan, it is not a question of aluta, but of:  Enigma continua!

However, in the process of trying to unravel and make sense of the life of an obviously exceptional individual, Butler does provide some excellent insights into many of the machinations surrounding the emergence of the modern trade union movement and of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in particular.  There is illuminating detail about the manner in which the constitutional process — for which Ramaphosa gained his greatest kudos — evolved and a good description of his venture into the world of big business.

That his early years were spent as a dedicated Christian evangelist whose entry into the political ferment of the time came via Christian youth movements is dealt with very well.  There are also some telling descriptions of the paternalism and patronising attitudes he observed and was subjected to by the belated — and very wealthy — converts to anti-apartheid liberalism.

Some of the passages relating to Ramaphosa’s relationship to what could probably be described as the Anglo (as in Vaal and American mining) aristocracy and their reformism are, I think, among the most telling penned here by Butler.

All of this has resulted in a generally laudatory reception for this biography.  However,  I did detect a faint whiff of the curate’s egg about it, with some very small and mildly off-putting parts to an otherwise highly commendable effort.

But these may have been more the result of poor editing than the fault of the author.  Butler is not South African so perhaps he can be excused for the apparent confusion about terms such as askari  and impimpi.  An editor should also have picked up the fact that the ANC-aligned trade union organisation, Sactu, was the Congress and not the Confederation of Trade Unions.  Especially since an SA Confederation of Trade Unions was established last year and has nothing to do with ANC affiliation.

There is also the statement  that the formation of Cosatu in 1985 was “widely and immediately recognised by liberation movement exiles as a triumph”.  It was not, because it undermined the claim by the exiled  Sactu leadership to be “the true representative of the South African workers”.  It took some time for rapid adjustments in attitude to be made.

But this statement, presented as fact, is attributed to one individual as the source.  And here is the a weakness in Cyril Ramaphosa.  Butler, on a several occasions, makes statements of apparent fact that a glance at his notes reveal are sourced only to one individual, even when they refer to a third party.

As a result, I was not entirely surprised when provincial and and local government minister Sydney Mufamadi took an issue concerning himself to law.  In the book, Mufamadi is quoted as having made a comment about Ramaphosa’s alleged sexual preferences to a meeting of NUM members.  NUM president, Frans Baleni is quoted as the source.

But neither Mufamadi nor anyone else was apparently asked to verify the statement which Mufamadi vehemently denies making.  Mufamadi demanded that the book be withdrawn from sale and the publishers agreed to excise the offending passages in future editions.

I should also have liked at least a passing reference to the fact that other prominent NUM leaders, besides Marcel Golding, who Butler mentions, also moved into and made great headway — and considerable fortunes — in business.  Irene Charnley, for example, became a director in companies linked to Ramaphosa and is today probably more wealthy than he.

James Motlatsi, Ramaphosa’s righthand man in the days of building the NUM and in tackling head-on the mining giants, became the deputy chair of what is now AngloGold Ashanti.  He is also the chief executive of the mine recruiting and services company, Teba, while former NUM legal officer, Kuben Pillay now heads a major division of the Primedia group.

But these are relatively minor criticisms of a volume that throws considerable light on our recent past and adds to an understanding of some of the undercurrents in the present — and quite turbulent — political arena.  What it does not do is give any real understanding of Ramaphosa the man, his motivations and beliefs.

He remains, in the words of former education minister Kader Asmal, on the jacket of the book,  “this most enigmatic and popular national leader”.

Posted in: Book Reviews