How Ramaphosa nearly became Nelson Mandela's deputy

Influential voices in the ANC had other ideas, says this edited extract from new biography, ‘Ramaphosa, The Man who would be King’

12 November 2017 - 00:03 By RAY HARTLEY
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Cyril Ramaphosa, who was ANC secretary-general at the time, stands next to President Nelson Mandela as he holds up a copy of the new South African Constitution at its signing in 1996.
Cyril Ramaphosa, who was ANC secretary-general at the time, stands next to President Nelson Mandela as he holds up a copy of the new South African Constitution at its signing in 1996.

When the struggle to end apartheid reached its climax in the late 1980s, Cyril Ramaphosa was positioned to take a great political leap forward. The front against apartheid consisted of three broad camps.

There were the "exiles", who were operating abroad either as diplomats mobilising public opinion and foreign governments against apartheid, or as members of Umkhonto weSizwe, which operated from states sympathetic to the ANC such as Angola and Zambia.

There were the "islanders" - named after the apartheid political prison, Robben Island - who included Nelson Mandela. And then there were the "internals", who mobilised communities behind the UDF and Cosatu. Following the intense repression of the mid-1980s, the UDF and Cosatu began to work interchangeably under the banner of the mass democratic movement.

By the time Mandela was released in February 1990, Ramaphosa had become a leading figure among the internals as general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers.

First meeting with Mandela

Mandela's jail conditions were substantially relaxed in the months leading up to his release from Victor Verster prison, near Paarl. He was moved into one of the warders' cottages on the property, where he was permitted to meet with members of the mass democratic movement.

Ramaphosa first encountered Mandela on one of these visits in late 1989, where he apparently made a good impression. Ramaphosa was among the members of the reception committee when Mandela emerged from prison on February 11 1990.

Mandela recalled the meeting at the cottage before his release: "A number of comrades from the Reception Committee, including Cyril Ramaphosa and Trevor Manuel, were at the house bright and early. I wanted initially to address the people of Paarl, who had been very kind to me during my incarceration, but the reception committee was adamant that that would not be a good idea."

Jay Naidoo recalls the chaos that engulfed the newly released Mandela: "Out of sight, you could hear the roar of more crowds, curious, joyful and impatient. We were extremely nervous about his safety as the state had abandoned the responsibility for Mandela's security and we had to act as his only bodyguards. Madiba and Winnie had been seated in a modest sedan, the best car we could organise, which belonged to someone Trevor Manuel knew and was driven by a Cape Town activist called Sonto. Cyril, Valli [Moosa] and I were piled into Trevor's beaten-up Toyota."

Making the early running

Mandela made his first public appearance on the balcony of the Cape Town City Hall. At his side stood Ramaphosa.

He was there in his capacity as the chairman of the National Reception Committee, a body set up to co-ordinate the activities that followed Mandela's release. His proximity to Mandela at this crucial moment played no small part in elevating his profile, leading to speculation that he might be destined for greater things.

Ramaphosa's access to Mandela was no political accident. He was viewed by the left within the ANC, which was suspicious of Thabo Mbeki's accommodating centrism, as a potential future leader. Mbeki's base among the "nationalist" exiles was unhappy with this, and a behind-the-scenes tussle ensued over who had access to Mandela and who, by extension, would one day have his blessing to take over the leadership.

Ramaphosa had the early running with Mandela, but by 1991 he had all but disappeared from his side. It was Mbeki who wrote all of Mandela's speeches in 1990 and 1991. Was Ramaphosa outmanoeuvred by a more calculating opponent?

Mbeki's biographer, Mark Gevisser, has a more sanguine explanation: "Some of Mbeki's detractors suggest that he 'iced' or 'dumped' Ramaphosa. More likely, he simply outpaced the trade unionist: no one else had Mbeki's stamina for - and experience in - the life out of hotel rooms that Mandela's grand global circuit required."

In July 1991, the pendulum appeared to swing the other way when Ramaphosa accomplished a major political coup, defeating the former exiles Alfred Nzo and Jacob Zuma to be elected ANC secretary-general at the party's first conference inside the country, in Durban.

Ramaphosa's decision to stand against Nzo and Zuma broke the unspoken exile pattern of such leaders being informally agreed on prior to the vote, an opaque process that had become habit because of the party's need to operate clandestinely while in exile.

Some of Mbeki's detractors suggest that he 'iced' or 'dumped' Ramaphosa. More likely, he simply outpaced the trade unionist.
Mark Gevisser

Ramaphosa enjoyed the support of the SACP and its highly influential leader, Joe Slovo, whom he had encountered in a Lusaka hotel room all those years ago. Mandela apparently approved of his election, saying: "Cyril Ramaphosa was elected secretary-general, evidence that the torch was being passed from an older generation of leadership to a younger one. Cyril, whom I met only upon my release from prison, was a worthy successor to a long line of notable ANC leaders. He was probably the most accomplished negotiator in the ranks of the ANC."

Leaving aside the fact that Mandela's memory of his first meeting with Ramaphosa while he was still in Victor Verster appeared to have become muddled with the latter's role at his release, it is clear that he was impressed with Ramaphosa's negotiating skills.

Despite the already existing strains, the Ramaphosa-Mbeki relationship was not entirely broken; Mark Gevisser relates this moment of comradely brotherhood between the two: "The conference was scheduled to close on July 8. But in the early hours of the morning of this final day, the debate on resolutions deadlocked, once more, around the issue of sanctions. The environment of the conference - comrades stirred into heightened militancy by their collective mass - could not have been more hostile to Mbeki and his ideas... Ramaphosa, the newly elected secretary-general, sidled up to Mbeki and said, 'Chief, you'd better take over. You're going to lose this battle.'"

Mbeki eventually took the floor and delivered a powerful statement that sealed the debate.

Palace coup

But Ramaphosa's deference to Mbeki's oratorical prowess was just one moment in a relationship that grew ever more bitter. Not long after the conference, Ramaphosa moved decisively against Mbeki and Zuma.

As Gevisser tells it, what can only be described as a "palace coup" took place in August while Mandela was away on a trip to Cuba and Mbeki and Zuma were at a conference in Cambridge: "Zuma heard about it on the BBC and went rushing over to tell his comrade: the new man, Ramaphosa, had convened the NWC [national working committee] while they were away, and had sidelined them!"

Zuma lost his position as ANC intelligence chief and was replaced by UDF leader Mosiuoa Lekota, while Mbeki was replaced as head of negotiations by Ramaphosa himself.

It was perhaps at this point that some of the exiles became wary of Ramaphosa, who had become a palpable threat to their hegemony within the ANC. It was, for the first time, conceivable that the leaders of the internal democratic forces might take over the ANC. Ramaphosa was no longer simply the man who held Mandela's umbrella. He was now a potential heir apparent. The political rivalry between Mbeki and Ramaphosa had been ignited and would burn fiercely for two decades.

At the Durban conference, Mandela had been elected ANC president, with Walter Sisulu as his deputy. Oliver Tambo, by now ailing, was elected national chairperson. Jacob Zuma would deputise for Ramaphosa as deputy secretary-general. One name notably absent from the top leadership structure was that of Thabo Mbeki.

Ramaphosa, it seemed, had won the day. But it was not to be. As suddenly and surprisingly as he had risen to a position of strength, he lost ground to Mbeki as the date drew near for the formation of a new government after the first democratic election. Ramaphosa had been elected as ANC secretary-general, but power was already slipping out of his hands within the party. Mandela had to choose who would serve as his deputy president in government. He chose Mbeki.

The episode is recounted by William Mervyn Gumede: "Mandela had personally canvassed ANC provincial branches to re-elect Ramaphosa, but in the run-up to the conference, Mbeki supporters had launched an all-out attempt to shove Ramaphosa to the margins and ensure that the way was open for their man to consolidate his power unchallenged. Despite the 1991 ANC conference triumph, the presidency still slipped out of Ramaphosa's hands. Even Mandela's partisan support counted for nothing."

Gumede has a simple explanation: "How had the decision been made? Just as Jawaharlal Nehru had been singled out for leadership when the Congress Party of India took power after independence in 1947, Mbeki was anointed by the ANC's elders."

Madiba's ethnic considerations

The man who would become Mandela's director-general in the Presidency, Jakes Gerwel, confirmed that Mandela had favoured Ramaphosa, but maintained that Ramaphosa's competence as an administrator was not the only factor considered: "Mischievous deductions are sometimes made from his disclosure that he proposed Cyril Ramaphosa rather than Thabo Mbeki as deputy president to the ANC's senior officials in 1994.

This proposal in fact had little to do with the respective merits of the two men - both of whom he holds in high regard as hugely capable leaders - but with his concern about allegations of Xhosa dominance while a non-Xhosa of Ramaphosa's capabilities was available."

Ramaphosa was by now very much in the Mandela mould, working hard to reconcile black and white South Africans. The political commentator Richard Calland recalls his first encounter with Ramaphosa at Cape Town's Baxter Theatre: "The audience was middle-aged as well as middle-class and almost entirely white. There was a buzz of nervous anticipation, which fell into a deathly hush as Ramaphosa walked in. Standing, he looked them in the eyes, paused, released his gentle smile and said - I will never forget the words - 'In a few weeks, we are all going to make history together.' He paused and the audience let out a sigh of relief. People looked around; did he say 'we'? We are going to make history together? Really? Not 'them' making it for 'us'."

Mandela personally canvassed ANC provincial branches to re-elect Ramaphosa, but Mbeki supporters launched an all-out attempt to shove him to the margins.
William Mervyn Gumede

When I spoke to Ramaphosa some 20 years later, in 2013, he said he believed Mandela wanted him to be his deputy president but had been countermanded after consulting senior figures in the party: "It was fairly simple and straightforward. Yes, it is true that Madiba had wanted me to play that role, but he had to consult other people and it was entirely within his right to consult a number of people and those people felt that I was still too young."

When we spoke, a long time had passed since this political fracture and Ramaphosa offered a reconciliatory view of this decision: "With hindsight, I agree with them, I was young. If I had taken that role, at 60 I would have been out. I would have been out, I would have served two terms and that would have been the end - at 60. And I still have unbelievable strength to carry on."

According to this version, the position taken was that Ramaphosa should wait his turn: "They argued, and I would say correctly, that there were more senior comrades in the ANC like Thabo Mbeki, Jacob Zuma and so forth, and then I think my, if you like, junior status, militated against me and Madiba chose a much more senior and experienced person by any definition, Thabo."

Ramaphosa recalled the conversation with Mandela, which went along these lines:

Mandela: Look, this is what I have decided. I would like you to get into the cabinet as minister of foreign affairs.

Ramaphosa: I actually would prefer to remain in the party to do what I have been elected to do which is to build the party.

Mandela listened as Ramaphosa explained that this task had been interrupted by the negotiation process when he had been asked to lead the negotiating team. An agreement was struck that Ramaphosa would stay out of the cabinet and continue as ANC secretary-general instead.

Snubbing the inauguration

One big clue that Ramaphosa was not entirely happy with the way things panned out following the 1994 election was his decision to skip Mandela's inauguration. For the secretary-general of the ANC to miss the swearing-in of Nelson Mandela, perhaps the greatest political event in the country's history, was astonishing.

It suggested that Ramaphosa was more than piqued at being overlooked and wished to show his displeasure. If this was so, it was an act of petulance that suggests a weakness in Ramaphosa's character. While his single-minded determination and his ability to impose his character on others during the negotiations had been a strength, it now seemed to be double-edged sword.

No sooner had the dust settled after the inauguration and the appointment of the new cabinet than Mandela once again called on Ramaphosa, this time to play a leading role in finalising the interim constitution. The document had to form the basis of a further set of negotiations to produce a final constitution, which all had agreed needed to be passed by a democratically elected parliament.

Mandela, much caricatured as a genial reconciler, may have harboured a deep political insight. He had been made to trust Mbeki as his deputy, but he wanted the final constitution to be driven to its conclusion by someone who shared his vision of a rights-driven document. Whatever his motivation, Mandela was insistent and Ramaphosa simply could not refuse.

He recalls that Mandela told him: "You can't say no, you've got to take this position and be chairman of the constitution-making body. There is no one else that I could have as chairman of this important body."

Jay Naidoo believes that Ramaphosa lost the leadership battle within the ANC because he was distracted by the constitutional negotiations: "Cyril's commitment to the negotiations was also to be the undoing of his goal to succeed Mandela. Cyril neglected the corridor politics of the ANC while others were busy building a base from which to seize political power within the ANC."

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