🔒 Biographer Anthony Butler: Decoding enigma that is Cyril Ramaphosa

LONDON — Is Cyril Ramaphosa the right man at the right time for a beleaguered South Africa? In 2008, Anthony Butler authored the definitive biography on SA’s new president. – Alec Hogg

This is the Rational Perspective, I’m Alec Hogg. In this episode ‘decoding the enigma – that is Cyril Ramaphosa.’ Biographies account for at least half the books I own and a legacy of a long held fascination for learning about people. This accumulation was turbo charged by Berkshire Hathaway chairman and devoted bookworm, Warren Buffett, making small talk whilst signing autographs I asked how many books the then 80-year-old read? He told me he had slowed to two a day, and his favourites were biographies and as you really can’t go wrong following Buffett. Well, my latest investment has been in the 413 pages of Anthony Butler’s superb biography on SA President Cyril Ramaphosa. Classically trained Butler, who read a PPE at Oxford and has a PHD from Cambridge, wrote the book more than a decade ago, after taking a nine-month break from his academic duties at the UCT to interview those close to this very private, deeply thoughtful politician who has and is playing such a massive role in his homeland.
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But this book first published in 2008, was updated in 2013. In it he provided an insightful postscript. He’s working on yet another update, which will be out soon, but it would be senseless to wait for that because this is a masterpiece. It opens a window to an enigmatic statesman, who’s the perfect antidote to the fake news and whispering campaign of our times, and provides balance to the kneejerk of event driven reporting, which shapes so much of our often-misguided perceptions. I’d wager that, like me, when you get to the end of Butler’s book you’re likely to end up feeling the project ‘rebuild SA’ couldn’t be in better hands. Kicking off the interview I asked the author, what motivated the project?

Well, I had been thinking of writing a biography of Ramaphosa for a number of years and my interest was initially in the National Union of Mineworkers in the 1980s. In the years in between, Ramaphosa moved through a whole series of very, quite distinct and fascinating pictorial episodes. So, he moved from the Union Movements into a leadership role in the ANC in the early 90s, and then into business and into the world of BEE. So, he not only passed through many of the key staging points in the development of modern SA, including the Constitutional settlement I should mention but also, he captured the contradictions of SA political lives. You look at Ramaphosa and see somebody who had tried to address the challenges of black workers, the most exploited black workers in the mining industry. A person who had become a businessman, a person who dealt with State building and Constitution building.

Cyril Ramaphosa
Cyril Ramaphosa poses for a photograph following a Bloomberg Television interview in London, U.K., on April 18, 2018. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

So, for me, he was a very obvious subject for a biography. The one very important resource that we have as academics, if we are fortunate, is to be able take sabbatical leave. So, I had nine-months with no teaching and I had just enough money to travel and interview people. So, most of the research and writing was done in those nine-months. I realised I had to work fast. It was, in many ways surprisingly easy to get people to talk to me. Not everyone who I wanted to talk to, but it was a very interesting experience.

You wrote a post-script in 2013, which is five-years ago, and the last sentence in the whole book reads, ‘Ramaphosa may yet become SA’s president but the road to the highest office in the hand is likely to be a rocky one.’

I always felt that he had unusual political resources, both as a person but also as a result of the networks hat he had become part of in his union and ANC career. So, I think we always looked at his generation of Gauteng-based politicians, with people like Tokyo Sexwale, and Mathews Phosa, and I think many of us wondered if one of them would eventually become president? Of the three, Ramaphosa was always the best placed but what I think one of us foresaw was that in 2012, would become Jacob Zuma’s ANC Deputy President and then State President. I think we still don’t really know how that occurred but it clearing involved a very good deal of long-range planning.

That ability to think years into the future is a cornerstone of the Ramaphosa that we meet and get to understand in Butler’s book. Like how, as a teenager during the height of apartheid SA this disenfranchised lad from Soweto told journalists and political commentator, Denis Beckett that he would one day be the country’s president.

In the 2013 edition, there was some change to the quotation because I talked to Denis again, just to clarify and to make sure that that was what he remembered, that Ramaphosa was supremely self-confident and talked about being the president. In that situation when the country was still in the middle of apartheid, quite an extraordinary thing for a young Christian teenager to say. It’s quite extraordinary.

You mentioned his early Christianity or very close relationship with Christianity, and then throughout the book its pop marked with quotes, including some that you brought from the Bible. Can you just elaborate a little bit on that and how his value system was influenced by those early years?

It’s an area where it’s particular difficult to access as a biographer, to understand peoples religious and ideological lives. But clearly, he was a Christian first and foremost as a student as a school pupil, and one of his contemporaries said that he was never seen without his Bible. At that time, in the early 1970s, when he was in high school and he went to the University of the North. There was what we could describe as a form of liberation theology in SA, and it was the end of a continuum of black consciousness politics. So, we’re all familiar with the arguments of black consciousness intellectuals that Christianity was in position by the colonial power. So, it’s the white man’s religion that were one of the instruments of oppression, but there were also at the other end – there were student activists like Ramaphosa and his contemporary Chikane, who later became DG in the presidency under Thabo Mbeki, who were Christians but they were also radicals and they used their Christian beliefs as a way of challenging apartheid discrimination.

I think that in my mind, the key break for Ramaphosa in many respects came with the two periods of detention, where he was kept in solitary confinement for much of the time, and were there were stresses and a great uncertainty about his future. I think he came out of detention a different person, and a person who was at least on the face of it, no longer willing to work though church-based institutions.

Ramaphosa may no longer carry his Bible with him everywhere but he never lost his affection for the beloved Lutheran Church of his youth. An upbringing that instilled him with a humility seems to have never left. It was put to good effect in SA’s negotiated settlement in the early 1990s, when Ramaphosa, still in his 30s, headed the ANC’s team. Butler reckons the Constitution itself was always going to emerge from why the collaboration, from consensus. But he says that the credit given to Ramaphosa for shepherding the process is fully justified.

There were many opportunities for the whole process to collapse, so I think the Constitution itself was said that it compromises that whether a product of wider structure and political sources but Ramaphosa’s great contribution was to ensure that those negotiations could come to a conclusion and not be derailed or destabilised by the political conflicts. We should remember that there were periods when the negotiation appeared to be close to breakdown and the key negotiators continued to talk one another. And it wasn’t just Roelf Meyer and Cyril Ramaphosa there were also really, very sustained relationships between other negotiators, including Mac Maharaj on the ANC side and Fanie van der Merwe on the Government National Party side. But Ramaphosa’s negotiating skills were learnt quite hard through his career in the National Union of Mineworkers.

So, initially when he began as the negotiator, on the one side was the Chamber of Mines, on the other was NUMs and not all of the negotiations he participated in went well. He honed his skills over seven, eight, or nine years of negotiations, and he was there for that reason, for the ANC, a very valuable resource and he might well not have become an important player in the ANC if they didn’t need a negotiator, someone who had real experience of negotiating complex deals.

That certainly is standing or appears to be standing the country in good stead at the moment. He was in New York recently, talking to Americans, just before that he was in China and we know how that relationship is going at the moment, between China and America. He’s able to court when he was a trade unionist, the old Soviet Union, as well as the Scandinavians, as well as the Americans. He seems, reading throughout the book to have this incredible ability to charm all sides, and I suppose in the SA of today that has got to be a huge asset.

I think that has certainly been a hallmark of his career that he has been able to pursue people of quite different ideological and political persuasions that he was broadly sympathetic to them. Perhaps the best example of that was his role in the minimum wage settlement that was reached last year. So, many people saw that as a poisoned chalice that Jacob Zuma had handed him the key role in determining whether SA should have a minimum wage and what level it should be set. Politically, that appeared to be an attempt to set him at odds with the COSATU constituency that he needed to pose a credible challenge to Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, in the conference last year and the vote for the ANC leadership.

The way that he managed it over those two-years was to, first of all, keep himself at arm’s length from the detail of what a minimum wage would do. Would it have employment effects? Would it affect some poverty. He didn’t commit himself personally, to express his own opinion. He sat up at arm’s length with a panel of experts he put in and trained a NEDLAC process. But ultimately those deliberations, based in parts on evidence and reasoning and contributions from experts, produced an outcome that was politically palatable to business and to labour. So, it was a pragmatic process. One in which Ramaphosa didn’t reveal his personal preferences but also one that secured, ultimately, buy-in from big business, at least and from the politically important element and labour, COSATU.

So, I think that, in a way, it catches his approach to many issues that people on both sides of that debate were willing to give him credit for taking their views seriously.

But the other poisoned chalice that appears to have been given to him is the whole land expropriation question. Are you seeing a similar process being followed there?

My suspicion is that Ramaphosa is, in fact, interested in land reform and that long probate, at the NASREC Conference. Ramaphosa is, of course a farmer. He also grew up in Soweto, in brick builds – and that was in Soweto. So, he has perspectives of his own about land reform, both rural and urban. I think that he has not just been making the best of a bad job, in a sense. I think he probably was going to turn to the land reform issue at a later stage. I think perhaps, now is a difficult time and it’s better to engage in a process of that kind when you have greater clarity about political authority where the economy is in a better condition. Where international investors are more comfortable with what the Government is doing. So, it wasn’t an ideal situation but I think that you can see from the way in which he’s responded that he’s thought about the issues. Not just the issues from the perspective of commercial agriculture, which I would say is the first key sector. Ramaphosa is not just a farmer, he also was of course engaged as the deputy-chair of the National Planning Commission in thinking of how agriculture could be a driver of economic growth and employment.

It comes across through the book that you’re a fan. That Ramaphosa is… He makes mistakes but he tends to learn from them. Time and again, we saw that. We saw it in the Trade Union movement. We saw that in politics, we saw that in business where his initial missteps were turned into spectacular successes thereafter. Is a biographer allowed to be a fan of the subject?

I wouldn’t say that I’m a fan. One problem with writing a biography is you become quite tired often, of the subject. Even though I wrote the biography relatively quickly. I think it’s certainly difficult to be an enthusiast and open eyed, like a light of anybody who you study closely. But he’s a very impressive person in his ability first of all, to bounce back on setbacks, to listen in situations that politicians have to. They have to sit in extended meetings with people whose opinions they may not agree with, and to listen to them seriously, and try to broker agreements between them. There is a pressure of enormous application, a person who can work relentlessly, a person who is willing to listen to people with diversional viewpoints and that’s quite a skill set in SA’s talent, political content.

The doubts about him have often concerned his ability to be decisive. Many people who know him well said he would never run for president until he knew he could win. And we’ve all been proved wrong on that, and that was a prediction that also universally held and he really planned and fought for that victory at NASREC and after that victory Zuma was despatched very fast. So, I think we misread him there that there is more of a streak of ruthlessness than we realised.

Also personally, I wasn’t sure initially that Ramaphosa was sufficiently interested in public policy to make a good president. One reason for that is that he doesn’t mind if people think he’s doesn’t know very much about the subject. A number of people I talk to was surprised that they had assumed that Ramaphosa was not on top of an issue, and then suddenly he came out with an almost perfect recall of conversations that they’d had two or three years previously, with very detailed knowledge of what the key issues were. So, I think that’s part of his personality. Although he is sensitive to criticism, he doesn’t feel a need to show that he’s smart and on top of things, and that doesn’t mean that he isn’t smart and on top of things.

Anthony, there’s a lot in your biography that is impressive as you said earlier, about Cyril Ramaphosa. But as a South African reading it, you really have to be uplifted given what the country has been through in the last 10-years of almost the antitheses of a thinking president that one has on the seat now. Is it naive to think that Ramaphosa is the answer to a maiden’s prayer?

To some extent, we all live on hope in current circumstances but I think that at least there is some grounds for hope now, and this time last year was a really very depressing period and it was difficult to see where the grounds for hope laid.

In some parts of the book you do say that if Ramaphosa was in the race he would have been a good successor. How would you rate him as being the best suited to the situation that SA is going into now?

I don’t think that any politician has the full range of capabilities that are needed to deal with the kind of multifaceted problems that the government is facing. But the country, it seems to me, needs to mobilise people of many different ideological and political orchestrations. Get them to work together to address these difficulties and that is his skill and we’re in the wild that is percept by polarisation in many countries in the political, not just in a political competition between parties but just in the character of political debates. So, Ramaphosa is, in many ways, a fortunate choice on the part of the ANC, or perhaps not a fortunate choice but somebody who has arrived at the right time.

At the right time, perhaps, not just for the ANC but for the young democracy as a whole. For the benefit of hindsight, it’s difficult to imagine anyone else within the ruling political party, who at December’s elective conference would have been able to stop a Zuma dynasty, and all that that implied.

That was Anthony Butler, author of the biography on Cyril Ramaphosa. This has been the Rational Perspective, I’m Alec Hogg, until the next time. Cheerio.