Stormy new course for rainbow nation

“Be patient,” said Cyril Ramaphosa’s allies when he lost out on becoming Nelson Mandela’s deputy and probable successor in South Africa’s new post-apartheid order in 1994. “Well, he has been,” says the Financial Times. Not even in his gloomier moments could he have imagined he would wait nearly a quarter of a century to be on the brink of leading South Africa – as he now is following his election as leader of the African National Congress (ANC).

The dapper young lawyer, who was at Mandela’s side when he left prison in 1990, may now be one of the country’s richest men, with a fortune estimated at R7.4bn. But he is viewed by admirers as “the acceptable face of South African capitalism”, says The Guardian. More significantly, his narrow victory over opponent Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma – ex-wife of the current president, Jacob Zuma – has helped avert South Africa’s decline into a “hereditary kleptocracy”.

Had she won, “she had been expected to shield Zuma from 783 counts of corruption”, as well as turning the country sharply to the left. During the campaign Ramaphosa, 65, promised “moral renewal” – an aim in keeping with his background, says Thapelo Tselapedi on The Conversation.

Raised in Soweto, the son of a policeman, Ramaphosa was elected head of the student Christian movement at high school and while studying law at university became active in politics. He went on to become the founding general-secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, wrangling with South Africa’s big mining firms to promote workers’ rights.

Renowned for his negotiating skills, he was an obvious candidate to lead talks for the ANC during South Africa’s political transition, becoming one of the key architects of the new constitution. South Africa’s last white president, FW de Klerk, recalled how Ramaphosa’s “silver tongue and honeyed phrases lulled potential victims, while his arguments relentlessly tightened around them”.

From trade unionist to top investor

Ramaphosa has enjoyed “lavish compensation” for his years in the cold after rivals took power, notes the FT. As one of the first ANC officials to be “deployed” into business, he amassed a fortune via the black economic empowerment movement, building a large investment firm, Shanduka, with interests in sectors ranging from mining to fast foods.

But while the links he established with South Africa’s private sector have burnished his credentials as a pragmatic leader, they’ve set him at odds with sections of the ANC. And in 2012 his popularity took a knock when police shot dead 34 striking workers at a mine operated by Lonmin. Ramaphosa, who was on the firm’s board at the time, condemned the strikers’ “dastardly criminal behaviour”.

Ramaphosa has as good a shot as any at righting the trajectory of the “rainbow nation”, says The Economist. But the continued presence of Zuma loyalists at the top of the party means it won’t be plain sailing. Capital Economics predicts a “stormy” transition. For Ramaphosa, the real work has just begun.