South Africa’s Ramaphosa: From comrade to businessman

The political career of South Africa’s president illustrates exactly what went wrong with the ANC-led transition.

Ramaphosa Reuters
South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa reacts as he arrives to attend the Commonwealth Business Forum Banquet at the Guildhall in London, Britain on April 17, 2018 [Simon Dawson/Reuters]

On July 18, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed a crowd of dignitaries at the Nelson Mandela centenary celebrations talking about his legacy and the achievements of the ANC.

“[Mandela] laid the foundation for the great progress we have made since 1994 in improving the lives of our people in a number of areas, with regards to access to basic services such as water, electricity, healthcare and education,” Ramaphosa declared.

While Mandela’s role in the transformation of South Africa is undeniable, the almost daily labour strikes and protests for access to land and basic services suggest that the foundations of inequality in the country have remained intact since 1994.  

Many South Africans still have no or inadequate access to utilities, education and healthcare and live in permanent and inescapable poverty.

And Ramaphosa, despite his credentials as former anti-apartheid activist and unionist, is not the man who would change that. He would not inspire a “new dawn” of hope and progress, despite what some South African media would have you believe.

In fact, his political and business careers illustrate well what went wrong with the ANC and its tripartite alliance with South Africa’s main union (COSATU) and the communist party, which led the transition from apartheid to democracy. 

His presidency will not resolve South Africa’s endemic problems. It will continue to maintain neo-liberal policies and social and economic structures that feed inequality and will not fulfill the promises made to South Africans back in 1994.

Ramaphosa: From anti-apartheid struggle to big business

Ramaphosa started his political career at the South African Students Organisation, a student group formed as part of the broader Black Consciousness movement which sought to unite black, coloured and Indian peoples of South Africa against the apartheid regime. In the painful and bloody aftermath of the 1976 Soweto Uprising, Ramaphosa was detained for six months for his participation. 

In the early 1980s, he went on to join the trade union movement and served as first secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and steadily rose through the ranks of the country’s then-largest trade union federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU).

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In 1991, he left the COSATU to serve as secretary-general of the ANC, where he played a crucial role in the negotiations with the South African regime to bring an end to apartheid and steer the country towards its first democratic elections in April 1994.

As expected, the tripartite alliance of the ANC, COSATU and South African Communist Party won a landslide victory in the historic election and a month later, Ramaphosa was elected chairperson of the newly formed Constitutional Assembly.

Despite initially promoting policies to improve access to education and healthcare for the poor to build a non-racist, non-sexist society, by 1996 the ANC-led government had switched to growth-oriented economic reforms, privatisation and austerity measures which undermined the already limited capacity of the state to provide social welfare. 

It was around that time that Ramaphosa resigned from all his ANC roles and joined the private sector. 

Among the central pillars to the ANC’s post-apartheid reform strategy was the policy of black economic empowerment. The government sought to increase the number of black South Africans that owned businesses and took on executive management positions in the country’s prominent companies. For this purpose, companies were compelled to adopt inclusive affirmative action plans.

But some ANC heavyweights, including Ramaphosa, swiftly became the primary beneficiaries of these efforts and increased their personal wealth substantially. 

In the two decades after his resignation from the ANC, he would hold leadership positions at various companies, allowing him to form an unexpected partnership with the white industry leaders who he fought against in the past as a unionist.


One of the roles Ramaphosa assumed as part of his growing business portfolio was a directorship position at Lonmin – a large British company that was founded in 1909 as a division of the London and Rhodesia Mining and Land company. 

It was at a platinum mine owned by this company that thousands of workers (all members of NUM, the union Ramaphosa was heading in the 1980s) started a strike in 2012 which ended with the police killing 34 miners and severely injuring 78 others. 

Although a commission of inquiry later cleared Ramaphosa of any responsibility for the massacre, the accusations continue to haunt him.

His transformation from “comrade” to “businessman” and one of the richest men in South Africa stands as perhaps great example of the ANC leadership’s failure to hold on to the ideals of the revolution they themselves made possible. 

Ramaphosa’s presidency: The rise of the opposition

The Marikana massacre marked a turning point in South African politics. It caused a split in COSATU and the emergence of the independent South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) in 2017. It also precipitated the rise of Julius Malema  and a number of high-profile leaders from the ANC Youth League who were expelled from the party.

In 2013, Malema and his supporters formed the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which entered the parliament in 2014 and since then has been prying political power from the ANC in major urban centres.

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In other words, the painful legacy of the Marikana massacre, which many still believe Ramaphosa held at least some responsibility for, stands at the heart of the waves of resistance currently challenging Africa’s oldest liberation movement, the ANC.

So when he started campaigning for the ANC presidency in 2017, he had to address this rising electoral threat to the ANC. He started talking about a “radical economic transformation”.

“Radical economic transformation is, in essence, about building a more equal society through sustained inclusive growth,” he explained. 

This is Ramaphosa’s attempt to isolate the left-wing opposition whose popularity had been growing among the increasingly radicalised electorate. 

When he won the presidency in February this year, he outlined a “new dawn” vision for the country. However, his initial actions proved to be acceptable for the elite, but more than disappointing for the most vulnerable sections of the South African society. He introduced a value added tax (VAT) increase, cut social spending, and kept the corporate tax stable .

He also announced some amendments to the labour law: the introduction of a national minimum wage (set at $260 – it was criticised by many as not amounting to a living wage), the requirement of a secret ballot prior to union-supported industrial strike action, and the introduction of an advisory arbitration panel which would allow a government agency to intervene in strikes deemed too violent or damaging to the economy.

These changes, set to be finalised towards the end of July, met fierce public resistance. On April 25, over 10,000 workers participated in a nationwide strike led by SAFTU, allied unions and community organisations against the proposed amendments which they argued would limit workers’ right to strike and largely contribute to the growing precarity of employment within the country. The alliance  also took a stand against the VAT increase and criticised the move as an attempt to shift the bulk burden of the slowing economy onto the working class.

The ANC’s attempt to capitalise on land reform by calling for “land redistribution without compensation” to win back some of its electorate might also fail. Since taking office, Ramaphosa has made several fiery public remarks echoing his ANC colleagues’ calls for swift and decisive action on what has been termed “the land question”. But in a June speech delivered at an Afrikaner event,  he also offered public reassurances to white farmers.

The EFF and SAFTU will undoubtedly use Ramaphosa’s economic policies and ambivalence on land reform against him in the 2019 national elections and attempt to decisively break the ANC’s two-and-a-half-decade-long hegemony in South Africa. SAFTU, in particular, has been working hard to reconstruct the labour movement in South Africa since its formation, while EFF’s sharp nationalist criticism of the ANC has struck a chord with a large portion of the public, particularly the youth.

Both, however, still have a lot of work to do to convince South Africans that they can offer a solution to the problems of structural discrimination, poverty and unemployment. 

Yet whatever challenges SAFTU and EFF are facing, one thing is for certain: Ramaphosa’s ascent to power will not mark a “new dawn” for the ANC. It might, however, accelerate its collapse.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.