SEEING THROUGH THE VANITY OF LIFE
Cyril Ramaphosa shrank this week. South Africa’s deputy president entered the Marikana Commission of Inquiry a bold and confident man. By the time the lawyers were done with him, he was but a little man. Ramaphosa appeared at the commission to account for his role in the build-up to the massacre of 34 miners in Marikana two years ago. He was fulfilling an undertaking he made in the aftermath of the massacre that he would be willing to appear before the commission to explain why he used his political influence to intervene on behalf of mine owner Lonmin to get the police to crack down on striking miners.
His detractors would have us believe that Ramaphosa’s call for “concomitant action” to be taken against the miners who were causing havoc in the platinum belt led directly to the killings. Ramaphosa’s version has been that by asking the police to restore law and order, he was being a responsible citizen.
This week, the two versions went head-tohead. While neither Ramaphosa nor the lawyers can claim to have won the day, Ramaphosa took heavy blows. The longer he was on the stand, the more his stature diminished.
To understand the shrinking of Ramaphosa, you have to go back to the rise of the man. He was a prince of the liberation movement, an individual who was destined for great things. As one of the founders of the National Union of Mineworkers, he was an architect of the Congress of SA Trade Unions (Cosatu). He played a pivotal role in making Cosatu the engine of the Mass Democratic Movement. History records that in the 1990s he was midwife to South Africa’s negotiated transition and a pioneer of black economic empowerment.
Having lost the duel to become Nelson Mandela’s successor to Thabo Mbeki, Ramaphosa was always expected to return to the political ring once his rival was off the scene. It was also known that he was never going to fight for the big job and would always wait for it to be handed to him on a platter because, in his mind, he was entitled to it.
Even though he remained on the ANC’s national executive committee, he largely stayed in the shadows, rarely gave interviews and made few public pronouncements. He allowed speculation about his ambitions to swirl and seemed to enjoy a mystery-man status.
During the Thabo Mbeki years of cold and distant leadership, we longed for his warm character. In the bumbling and buffoonish Jacob Zuma years, we long for some brain and integrity. His return to politics in 2012 was accidental. The Zuma camp needed a sober-minded and presentable person to be his running mate in the race against the more dignified Kgalema Motlanthe. Ramaphosa grabbed the opportunity and put himself in pole position to succeed Zuma.
His return trip appeared to hit a pothole when his behind-the-scenes Marikana manoeuvres became public. People began asking whether this would harm his chances. But anyone with a little understanding of ANC politics would have known that this would cause no damage. It should have been obvious that a party led by someone who has a hungry wallet and rampaging libido would not pass judgement on a capitalist comrade for selfishly guarding his investment from unruly mobs.
He easily negotiated the pothole and now sits comfortably in the East Wing of the Union Buildings. He is behaving himself, singing Zuma’s praises at every turn, but is most likely hoping he doesn’t have to wait until 2019 to move to the West Wing.
The only thing standing in Ramaphosa’s way is a campaign by some in the party’s ranks to get African Union boss Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to return and leapfrog him when her term in Addis Ababa is up. This in itself would be a terrible thing because if you thought Mbeki was cold, you have not felt the Arctic wind that is Dlamini-Zuma’s persona.
Before South Africa accepts the inevitability of a Ramaphosa presidency, some questions need to be asked about his fitness to lead. Although we cannot draw a straight line from Ramaphosa’s exhortations for “concomitant action” to the actual killings, there is no doubt his interventions did a lot to move the police’s reaction stance from code blue to code red.
The fact that as a future president he played a role in the events that led to post-apartheid’s first massacre should matter. This was no small accident on a rural road. It was a seismic event in the life of our republic.
This week, he conceded that in his interventions he prioritised getting the police to act against the strikers and did not bother giving much attention to getting his company back to the negotiating table. “One should have sought to find out more closely the actual process of negotiating with the union. I would concede I should ... have probed that.” With those words, he shrank and the giant was no more.