Urban, employable, rich – ANC’s new breed leader

Here are some facts about Cyril Ramaphosa that may be relevant or decisive as he negotiates the years ahead, first as president of the ANC and second, presumably, as president of South Africa.

Patrick Bulger

These autobiographical details suggest a departure from the template that defined democratic South Africa’s earlier presidents.

On the face of it they herald a different style and tone of government ahead, a new type of leader, albeit within the confines imposed on him by the ANC.

Ramaphosa would be the first of the democratic presidents with an urban pedigree, born in a township, Soweto, rather than in the rural backwaters that gave us Nelson Mandela: Mvezo and Qunu in the Eastern Cape; Thabo Mbeki: Mbewuleni in Dutywa, also in the Eastern Cape; and Jacob Zuma: Nkandla (where else?) in KwaZulu-Natal.

Ramaphosa’s kasi roots suggest a leader whose world view is informed and shaped by the rude clash of cultures of city life.

By contrast, the certainties of established rural existence, its rituals and hierarchies, and the dead hand of traditional leadership, would tend to produce a political character less at-tuned to the cacophony of democratic give-and-take.

Those before him were inclined to traditional and regal deference (in the case of Mandela), ANC-grandee elitism (Mbeki) or belly-first big-manism (Zuma).

Ramaphosa would be the first non-Nguni president – a Venda, of a tribe not usually found at the top of the political pecking order.

This may or may not be relevant, but it could break the perceived Nguni stranglehold that critics say has characterised ANC leadership until now. Mandela was Xhosa, as is Mbeki, and Zuma is a Zulu – actually 100% Zulu boy, according to his supporters.

The rise of Ramaphosa may also help to staunch the creeping and reactionary traditionalism that became a hallmark of the Zuma era, manifested in patriarchy and ultraconservative social attitudes towards, for example, gay people and women.

Ramaphosa would be the first president with a practical knowledge of the world of work.

Mandela’s work career, as a lawyer, was dwarfed by his political activism and curtailed by the trials and imprisonment that constituted much of his adult life.

Mbeki, having apparently joined the ANC at age 14 at the behest of his father, liberation icon Govan Mbeki, was an activist and politician all of his life.

Zuma, similarly, joined the ANC at a young age, and has remained a stranger to gainful employment of the ordinary kind ever since.

Not only did Ramaphosa work – his first job as a lawyer was in the trade unions in 1982 – but his experiences as a union organiser, especially with the National Union of Mineworkers, give him an insight into and empathy for the lives and stresses and strains of working people that his predecessors cannot have had.

The fourth difference relates to Ramaphosa’s relationship with the world of business.

Seeing Ramaphosa smiling and shaking hands with “ordinary” people at the ANC conference, dressed in a T-shirt and looking the regular guy, one might forget just how fantastically rich the new president of the ANC is.

According to Forbes his personal worth is a staggering R8.5-billion.

In fact, he slipped down the dollar “rich ranks” by becoming ANC president, as the rand gained to a five-month high to the dollar.

It would be fair to say that Ramaphosa shares few of the suspicions, and indeed lingering resentments, towards business that his predecessors harboured, or feigned to harbour when it suited them politically.

Mandela was converted from nationalisation to private ownership, and liked to shake down businessmen in public and embarrass them into ceding cash to his pet projects.

Like Mbeki and Zuma after him, Mandela never quite accepted the “profit motive” as reason in itself for having a business.

Uniquely then, in this company of leaders, Ramaphosa is unlikely to look down on the “profit motive” from the towering heights of unemployability.

Instead, in celebrating profit and enterprise he may be able to convey his vision of how business can “come to the party”, to use the phrase so loved by the haters of capitalism to describe business’s reluctance to join any fun that can be had for business in a no-growth environment.

In short, Ramaphosa would be the first president of independent means, which means he wouldn’t have to go cap in hand to the likes of Schabir Shaik for a car wash.

The sixth difference relates to political culture. Ramaphosa, unlike those before him, is the first not to be reared in the secretive and anti-democratic environments imposed upon the liberation movement and its main actors in the pre-democracy era, and which were made necessary by exile and imprisonment.

Ramaphosa was detained, for 11 months, in 1974 as a student, and was harassed during his years with NUM and the broader mass democratic movement.

But he largely operated within the freedom offered by the reforms of the later apartheid era, especially those relating to trade unionism.

As such, his political pedigree is one informed by democratic contest and community struggles, the use of the media and of mass mobilisation – a modern struggle in comparison to the secretive, paranoid and conspiracy-laden world of armed struggle and exile.

In all, then, Ramaphosa is a leader who should be attuned to the modern world and its demands, especially in respect of the economy, in which limitations are placed on notions of sovereignty in a globalised world.

These features of a Ramaphosa presidency could determine whether South Africa will thrive as a nonracial democratic society, or remain trapped between notions of an idyllic and romanticised past and myopic visions of a populist nirvana yet to come.

He could be our first modern leader.

Patrick Bulger is with the Sunday Times

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