By the time I met Cyril Ramaphosa in 1992, he was Nelson Mandela’s choreographer at the negotiations that would eventually bring three centuries of white dominion to a thrilling and relatively peaceful end.
Every day a polyglot, multiparty assembly – of former prisoners and their one-time oppressors, communists and Bantustan autocrats, and Afrikaner nationalists and union militants – mingled in a conference centre outside Johannesburg to discuss what would in effect be the terms of surrender.
Mandela provided the moral authority. Ramaphosa, then secretary-general of the anti-apartheid alliance, the African National Congress (ANC), was the business end.
Big, round-faced, grinning through a peppercorn beard, a charming manipulator in multiple languages, he was adept at both creating tension and defusing it, at threatening to send his constituents on a campaign of “rolling mass action” and then easing the pin back into the grenade.
Janet Love, a member of Ramaphosa’s negotiating team who now runs a human rights law centre in Johannesburg, reminded me recently how he resolved the conundrum that arises when you have a constellation of 19 parties and alliances in which some matter more than others, namely: how do you know when something should be regarded as decided?
Ramaphosa came up with the concept of “sufficient consensus”.
It was a polite way of saying that when the white National Party and the ANC came to terms, everyone else, as Ramaphosa explained later to a reporter, “can get stuffed”.
When the deal was done, he was the obvious choice – in fact, he was Mandela’s choice – to be the first deputy, next in line for the presidency.
But the party elders, especially the powerful faction that spent the struggle in exile, were wary of Ramaphosa, who had worked the home front as a union organiser and came late to the ANC.
So on my visit to South Africa this past December, I met a new Ramaphosa: the tycoon, at the office of his holding company, Shanduka Group, in Johannesburg’s most upscale neighbourhood.
On the Forbes list of the richest Africans, Ramaphosa is number 21.
His worth is estimated at R6.1 billion.
I was there because of reports that he was considering a return to politics.
Sure enough, a week after our conversation, the ANC summoned him back to the national cause, voting him the party’s deputy president by a landslide.
The election put Ramaphosa, now 60, back on the track Mandela had in mind for him 18 years ago.
At last, we may find out whether he is, as many South Africans have long believed, the best president South Africa has not yet had.
To someone visiting after a long absence, South Africa feels both prosperous and precarious.
The airports and sports arenas of Johannesburg and Durban are world class.
And there is a class of very rich black capitalists like Ramaphosa.
But the wealth does not completely hide a malaise, born of inequality and corruption, and discharged in bursts of violent discontent.
The most unsettling recent reminder that South African liberation is far from fully delivered was a wildcat strike in August that ended with the massacre of platinum miners in a town called Marikana.
The mine killings entangled Ramaphosa in a controversy which, in the US, would surely have the suffix “gate” attached to it.
He is a shareholder and board member of the platinum company whose mine was the scene of the killings.
Indeed, his portfolio is stuffed with investments in the mining industries.
In the days of white rule, Ramaphosa organised South Africa’s powerful black mine workers’ union.
So the industries that made him a champion of the liberation struggle have, more recently, made him a very wealthy man and caused some to question where his loyalties lie.
He is now trying to turn a tragedy that looked at first to be a liability into an asset – a spur to action for a democracy in dire need of a second wind.
“What Marikana gives us is an opportunity – it has come at great cost – to actually start afresh,” he told me.
Lonmin, the multinational that owns the embattled mine, is a financially troubled company based in London.
Ramaphosa’s holding company acquired 9% of Lonmin’s South African subsidiary in 2010 and when the strike became ugly, the feckless management turned to Ramaphosa for counsel.
Emails the company handed over to a continuing official inquiry describe Ramaphosa pleading with his contacts in government, the union, the ANC and the mining industry to stop the bloodshed.
By August 15, when Ramaphosa vented his frustration to the chief commercial officer of Lonmin, 10 people had been killed in the battles among strikers, non-strikers, local union officials and mine security guards.
“The terrible events that have unfolded cannot be described as a labour dispute,” Ramaphosa wrote.
“They are plainly dastardly criminal and must be characterised as such. In line with this characterisation, there needs to be concomitant action to address this situation.”
The following day, the police arrived in paramilitary formation.
Thirty-four people were mowed down by a barrage of automatic rifle fire.
Ramaphosa’s political enemies portrayed those emailed pleas for order as an incitement to police murder.
A massacre was pretty clearly not what Ramaphosa meant by the lawyer phrase “concomitant action” and the accusation did not find many takers in the ruling party.
Until our interview in December, Ramaphosa was silent on the massacre, except to say that he would testify at the investigation and contribute to the burial costs of those killed, a gesture that struck some as suggestive of a guilty conscience rather than noblesse oblige.
The larger story though is not how the miners died, but how they lived.
One urgent lesson of Marikana is that democracy has done little to reform South Africa’s most important industry.
Ramaphosa argues that the killings at Marikana should provide the political spark for a wholesale restructuring of the mining industry; a restoration of the unions as genuine worker representatives; and a partnership between the mine companies, the national government and the inert municipal authorities to set up sustainable communities.
For starters, he suggests that miners work shorter cycles with more trips home and that hostels be restored but made livable.
“Is that possible?” he mused. “I think it is, and we should begin to experiment on it as quickly as possible if we are going to restore the legitimacy of mining in the minds and hearts of our people.”
Beyond mining, Ramaphosa is an author of an epic new 20-year “national development plan”, drafted for the government by a committee of businessmen and technocrats, and led by the widely respected former finance minister, Trevor Manuel. Like most such plans, it is long on promises and aspirations.
For most of the past few centuries, there were two prevalent methods of enrichment in Africa: colonial plunder and indigenous kleptocracy.
South Africa is no stranger to either method, but Ramaphosa’s wealth is derived from another source.
As part of the grand bargain by which whites relinquished their political monopoly, the new Constitution promised an array of measures to introduce blacks into the landowning, goods-producing, profit-sharing market economy.
Some white industrialists, especially in mining, were savvy enough to get into the good graces of the ANC early.
The tenuously collegial relationship continued after liberation. Over time, there would be affirmative action in hiring and promotions, set-asides of government contracts for minority suppliers.
In the mining sector, the industry and the government agreed that by 2014 a quarter or more of the value of each company would be in black hands.
Some creative financing was typically required – or as political economist Moeletsi Mbeki, a critic of the system (and brother of the former president), put it: “financial razzmatazz”.
Ramaphosa set up his holding company in 2001 and began acquiring shares in ways that were pretty typical.
Sometimes Shanduka’s acquisitions were financed by banks on the bet that the loans would be repaid out of dividends or rising stock values.
Sometimes Shanduka borrowed the money directly from the company whose shares it was acquiring.
If the deals were generally structured to lay the risk on the majority white shareholders, this was regarded as both fair payback for centuries of oppression and a way of keeping the lines to government open.
Because, not surprisingly, the most prosperous new black owners maintained close ties to the ANC government and contributed financially to the party’s coffers.
Throughout his time in the private sector, Ramaphosa has remained on the party’s national executive committee and has been the chairman of influential working groups – including the one that devised the rules of black economic empowerment.
The theory was that newly empowered black capitalists would make it their responsibility to pass their good fortune down to the workers and new business acumen down to a next generation of black start-ups.
As Ramaphosa conceded when we talked last month, not enough trickled down.
It was not until 2009 that Ramaphosa began a concentrated effort to “incubate” small and medium black businesses by giving them seed money, training and mentors.
There are currently 73 new entrepreneurs in the Shanduka programme.
“Could it have moved quicker in 18 years?” Ramaphosa asked. “My answer is no.
Our expectations were far too high.
“Your country has had 200 years of democracy,” he added.
“We’re teenagers. We’re still growing up.”
In fairness, South Africa has made real progress.
The country has grown a substantial black middle class and extended subsistence-level welfare for the poorest.
But an enormous population remains immobilised at the bottom.
The fastest-growing party is not the ANC or the opposition DA; it is the party of nonvoters, the disillusioned.
If I had to sum up what I heard in two weeks of reporting in a simple plea, it would go like this: Spare us the liberation cant; send us someone who can just get the job done.
Thabo Mbeki, who had the impossible task of following Mandela, was not that person.
Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, another mine union veteran who served a tour as interim president after Mbeki was ousted, is regarded as decent but ineffectual.
And President Jacob Zuma, elected in 2009, has become a laughing stock.
The obvious question, asked by sceptics and admirers alike, is how much a Ramaphosa can do to fix a system that is festering from top to bottom.
Ramaphosa acknowledged the corruption, describing it as “a cancer”, but said he was confident it could be “reeled in”.
When I asked about Zuma, whose latest scandal is the fortune in government and special-interest money lavished on his fortified country estate, Ramaphosa deferred to the various official investigations under way, which may or may not be allowed to run their course.
The fact that South Africa has an aggressive free press and outspoken opposition parties that provide the critics with so much meat is a sign of underlying ethical health, he said.
Ramaphosa’s reappearance in the line of succession surprised many people who doubted he had the fight in him.
He has some of President Barack Obama’s distaste for drama – he did not fight for the deputy job but waited to be anointed.
When we met, Ramaphosa made a point of sounding eager for combat.
“The one thing I liked with Obama’s acceptance speech” after the 2012 election, he volunteered, “was when he said, ‘Democracy can be noisy and messy’. But it works. And I think ours is like that as well. Ours is very dramatic and messy and noisy.”
Ready or not, expectations have been fanned back to life. Having been crowned Zuma’s deputy in the party, Ramaphosa is poised to become vice-president of the government.
There is speculation, so far unconfirmed, that Zuma will let him carve out a role as a kind of prime minister, surround himself with a competent team and start enacting the reforms laid out in the new National Development Plan.
There is a more improbable chance that Zuma, perhaps even before the next election in 2014, will be dragged down by allegations of malfeasance, leaving Ramaphosa at the top.
This may all be magical thinking, but South Africa’s young democracy has a resilience that has taken it this far.
Everything about South Africa is negotiated, including the terms of coexistence across lines of language, race, ideology and class.
Maybe the country is ready for a negotiator in chief, a man who brings, among other things, an instinct for the sufficient consensus. – New York Times Magazine. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate
» Keller is a former executive editor of The New York Times and was the paper’s Joburg bureau chief from 1992 to 1995. He writes a column for the Times’