🔒 FT’s Big Read: Alec Russell on SA’s ‘lost leader’ Cyril Ramaphosa

Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa’s president, faces his toughest election yet as the African National Congress (ANC) risks losing its 30-year dominance. His leadership, marked by a focus on consensus and anti-corruption efforts, is now challenged by economic decline, corruption allegations, and internal party divisions. As Ramaphosa campaigns to retain power, the ANC may need a coalition to govern, signalling a pivotal moment in South Africa’s political landscape.

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By Alec Russell – The FT’s foreign editor

What’s at stake in Cyril Ramaphosa’s last election ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, has come to the front line of the country’s tempestuous election campaign with a knockout gift for the local boss. It is sheltering in the shade of a trailer at the back of the presidential motorcade, swishing its tail. This prime head of cattle is a present for a village chief to secure his blessing for a day of politicking on his turf.

The formalities take up a precious hour of the president’s time, but needs must. The party he leads, the African National Congress (ANC), is facing its first serious electoral threat in its 30 years in power. As Ramaphosa bows his head at the chief’s family graves, I am reminded of the trademark of his long career: the patient quest to reach for the middle ground. It has served him and South Africa well on many occasions, not least in helping end apartheid without an all-out war. In the 1980s and early 90s, Ramaphosa had a magic touch as a negotiator, presiding over a series of near-miraculous agreements to ensure the end of white rule. He was one of the architects of that historic settlement that led to that inspiring morning in April 1994, when millions of Black South Africans lined up to cast their first vote.

Such excitement seems a distant memory now. Ramaphosa is the frontman for a party that has lost its moorings. In recent years, the ANC has been mired in corruption and presided over the country’s calamitous economic decline. If, as opinion polls suggest, it drops below 50 per cent of the vote for the first time, the ANC could end up having to go into coalition to stay in office. Whatever the outcome, an era is drawing to a close.

As for the 71-year-old president, once seen as South Africa’s man for all seasons, this is not how his last chapter was meant to be. On and off the campaign trail, his leadership is challenged: by unemployment, electricity shortages and the collapse of the transport network; by allegations of mismanagement and corruption; by doubts about whether he still has the stomach to lead. Another question looms in the background: is his superpower of yesteryear, namely his genius at bringing together opposing factions, now his big weakness?

I catch up with Ramaphosa as he emerges from the chief’s kraal (homestead) in the settlement of KwaXimba, just inland from the Indian Ocean. For a moment, it is as if we are back in the ANC’s glory days. Members of the Women’s League march, chant and sing. Trade unionists do the toyi toyi, the high-stepping dance of the “struggle”. Many are wearing yellow T-shirts adorned with Ramaphosa’s trademark beam. I have met Ramaphosa many times before and as he launches into a defence of his record, he flashes that smile again. The trade unionists’ energy reminds him, he says, of his days as a union leader in the 1980s.

Ramaphosa was a young man with a remarkable story when he forged his reputation as a master negotiator. The son of a policeman, he spent a year in prison for anti-apartheid activism before gaining a law degree and joining the union movement. In the early 80s, he faced down the mining company Anglo American, currently facing a takeover battle, gaining approval for the first Black miners’ union. The victory was a key moment in the unwinding of the apartheid economy, which was effectively run for the benefit of the white minority. Going toe-to-toe with what was then one of the world’s most successful mining companies was just the start.

A spokesperson whisks him away. Enveloped by party bigwigs, he seems as much a prisoner of the ANC as he does its president

On February 11 1990, Ramaphosa stood at Nelson Mandela’s side for his first speech as a free man after 27 years in prison. In the four years that followed, he played a pivotal role in steering South Africa to democracy even as the white rightwing and Zulu nationalists threatened civil war. After outmanoeuvring his ANC rivals to take charge of the talks with the governing National Party, he then wore down their negotiators. “He was pretty decisive then,” recalls Tony Leon, who was an opposition MP and went on to be the head of the official parliamentary opposition between 1999 and 2007. “He knew what he wanted, and he was good at sizing up his opponents. He played [the National Party] negotiators like a Stradivarius violin.”

On the night in November 1993 that the post-apartheid deal was done in a conference centre outside Johannesburg, Ramaphosa and his opposite number, Roelf Meyer, took to a dance floor to celebrate. So too did many of the journalists covering the talks. I was among them. We admired Cyril, as everyone referred to him, hugely. We knew he was brilliant at courting the media, but this was a historic moment. Apartheid was over. That night was also Ramaphosa’s 41st birthday.

There was one more unifying triumph, as he steered the drafting of South Africa’s constitution. But after being passed over for the role of Mandela’s deputy, Ramaphosa left the political stage in the mid-90s and didn’t return for nearly two decades. Friends say that he still longed to lead his party and country. But by the time he returned to frontline politics, as deputy leader of the ANC under Jacob Zuma in 2012, it was a very different party. Like so many revolutionary movements, the ANC has not aged well in power, increasingly losing sight of the distinction between party and state. This trend accelerated disastrously under Zuma, Ramaphosa’s disgraced predecessor, who was the country’s president from 2009 to 2018, during which time several ministries and state-owned enterprises were effectively given over to business interests.

On taking over the party in December 2017, Ramaphosa’s challenge was whether to conciliate and seek consensus once again, or confront and clean house. “The big question was whether he would make the transition from negotiator to leader,” says his biographer Ray Hartley, a veteran political journalist and author of Ramaphosa: Path to Power. “He had a golden opportunity. He had something only Mandela had before him: the whole nation rooting for him. But he couldn’t lift his eyes from the ANC cauldron to see that. He felt he had to compromise and go for the unity of the ANC. This is a man who will only lead when he sees the playing field tilted his way.”

In KwaXimba, Ramaphosa tells me his priority was “to rebuild and reposition the country, and extricate it out of the terrible culture that has seeped in and started to develop, of corruption”. He has publicly bemoaned how, under Zuma, the ANC became “accused number one”. He has also gradually sidelined several corrupt leaders.

Allies argue that he had to move cautiously, given he had won the party leadership only by a narrow margin. Cunningham Ngcukana, a fellow union leader in the 1980s, says it is too simplistic to criticise Ramaphosa for his consensus-seeking. “In an organisation like the ANC, when you act precipitously, or settle scores you can break it,” he says. “A liberation movement has a lot of procedures. It is not a corporate organisation, where the leader can impose his will.”

But plenty of former allies and business leaders argue that during his six years as president, and as Zuma’s deputy before that, Ramaphosa was too cautious in confronting the broader rot in the party. In KwaXimba I hear repeated complaints about corruption in the allocation of contracts. One ex-official and old ally of Ramaphosa’s tells me the party still has “a gazillion other little Guptas”, a reference to the three Gupta brothers who orchestrated much of the corruption of the state under Zuma.

Mbhazima Shilowa is withering about Ramaphosa’s softly, softly approach. Shilowa was a union leader in the 1990s, before becoming the ANC’s premier of Gauteng, the province including Johannesburg and Pretoria. He quit the party when Zuma became leader. “Some of us said when [Ramaphosa] took over that he was only going to succeed if he took the hard choices,” he says. “What Cyril did is try to say that this is the ANC of Nelson Mandela, that you need to consult everyone and bring them on board. But you can never consult on matters of ethics and integrity. Either they are the bedrock, or they become fiction.”

Over and again, current and former allies refer to Ramaphosa’s near-worship of consensus and an aversion to confrontation. Keeping the party together is his lode star, says his old union ally Ngcukana. “Cyril believes that the party has all these different poles, and you cannot move to one or you will break it. When he came into office, this was his greatest fear. He doesn’t want the ignominy of it happening in his tenure.”

Keeping the party together is an increasing headache. When I meet Ramaphosa in KwaXimba in late April, he is on a whirlwind tour of the eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal, where the ANC faces its most acute challenge. KwaXimba is in a stunning setting overlooking green valleys and hills as far as the eye can see. But this is Zuma’s home patch. The former president formed a breakaway party in December last year with a redistributionist agenda. It could win 10 per cent of the vote, if polling proves accurate, with most of its supporters defecting from the ANC.

In a reminder of the threat, Zuma supporters are holding a rowdy pop-up rally a mile or so from where Ramaphosa has chosen to campaign. The new party, known as MK, is cheekily named Umkhonto we Sizwe (spear of the nation) after the old armed wing of the ANC. Sporting new T-shirts and caps, the Zumaites sing mash-ups of old ANC songs, an implicit reminder of how far it has fallen since the first three post-apartheid elections when it cruised home all but unopposed with about two-thirds of the vote. In the last election in 2019 it slipped to 57 per cent.

As chants of “Viva ANC! Viva!” go up from his supporters, Ramaphosa begins to tell me about a recent report that shows corruption on his watch is down, before an ANC spokesperson moves in to whisk him away. The president promises to talk again. As he moves down the hill, enveloped by party bigwigs, he seems as much a prisoner of the ANC as he does its president.

After Mandela passed him over, Ramaphosa was uncertain if his moment would ever come. He headed to business, and the one-time union firebrand rapidly became one of the richest, most prominent and successful members of the country’s new Black corporate elite. It was during these years that the idea of Ramaphosa as a “lost leader” started to take root.

The ANC had quickly identified the creation of a Black middle class and business sector as essential for shoring up the new post-apartheid state. As companies run by, and for, white people sought Black partners to meet new regulations on racial equity and management, a number of senior ANC figures, including Ramaphosa, were given stakes in consortia. As long as the stock rose, it was a fast-track route to wealth. For the white-run companies hiving off the new entities, it was a way of ingratiating themselves with the ANC. Ramaphosa became a popular pick for corporate boards in London and Johannesburg.

When he became president in 2018 there was hope that Ramaphosa would draw on his experience in the private sector to revitalise the economy after the radical anti-capitalist lurch of his predecessor. Opting for hope over experience, many in business chose to forget that he had kept silent for many of his years serving under Zuma. Instead, they assumed that the country finally had a president who understood the free market. Today, the business leaders and former policymakers who were among his most vocal backers are deeply frustrated by his government’s record. “Out of 10, I’d give his economic performance a two,” says a former official, who is sympathetic to the president’s political predicament but not to his economic record. “He inherited a very bad situation but he’s done almost nothing to fix it.”

In the decade and a half after 1994, South Africa grew at about 3.5 per cent a year, benefiting from sure-footed policymaking and a global commodities boom. Then came the 2008 financial crisis and Zuma. In the past 14 years the country has grown at barely 1 per cent, and unemployment has surged to 50 per cent among young people. And while the electricity crisis that forced the country into rolling blackouts may finally be in hand, this has only happened after a terrible hit to the economy that left officials longing for Ramaphosa to assert his authority.

“There is a toughness to him on certain issues,” says Abba Omar, a longtime public servant and former ambassador to the UAE and Oman. “But there are times as a leader that you need to take that hard decision. Some in his office feel his commitment to shepherding people with a consensus decision doesn’t necessarily work. Some people just don’t want to be shepherded, and they will keep undermining his process and kicking the can down the road.”

There is a long tradition of politicians around the world losing their edge when they move into corporate life. Some ask if Ramaphosa went a little soft in his years away from the front line, when he became known, among other things, for dabbling in farming and developed a hankering for expensive livestock. Leon, the former opposition leader, suggests he may have lost the “fire in his belly” during his boardroom years. “People expected the old Cyril and someone different emerged,” he says, though he adds that, “despite everything”, he is by far the most popular politician in the country. “He reminds me of one of those GPs with a terrible diagnostic record but a very good bedside manner.”

No one has ever suggested that Ramaphosa himself is corrupt. But events at his stud farm, Phala Phala, damaged his reputation two years ago, after it emerged that $580,000 had been found in the back of a sofa there. He later claimed the cash was from a Sudanese businessman who had turned up unexpectedly to pay for one of his bulls. Most commentators believe it was an undeclared donation to the ANC.

As president, his style has been more that of a chairman than chief executive. This would certainly not come as a surprise to anyone who saw him up close in business meetings. “He tended to speak only after weighing up the mood,” one former colleague in the private sector recalls. “Time and again he’d try to find the middle ground.”

A veteran dealmaker says that Ramaphosa’s preference for conciliation over conflict was clear from his earliest deals. “He never went for the jugular when you needed him to.” Such recollections resound all the more clearly now that the euphoria that greeted his presidency has subsided.

Early one morning, I drive 30 miles north of Johannesburg to a farm cafe outside Pretoria. The three-lane highway testifies to the huge societal changes that have taken place since 1994. Thirty years ago, the road had little traffic and most cars were driven by white people. Now the lanes are clogged and almost all the cars have Black drivers. I am heading to see a successful embodiment of the new Black middle class, Busi Mavuso, the head of Business Leadership South Africa, the big business lobby group.

Mavuso sees Ramaphosa every six weeks and is a fan, but she does not mince her words. “With all his faults and weaknesses [he] gets it . . . and has tried his best,” she says. But “his biggest flaw is that he tries to please everyone. We find ourselves in a low-growth trap and we are not easily going to be able to get out of this economic rut. You need foreign direct investment, but for that you need the basics such as functioning energy . . . ” When it comes to attracting investment, she adds, east Africa is “eating South Africa’s breakfast”. “We grew at 0.6 per cent last year with a population growth of 1.6 per cent. We are becoming poorer. And South Africans are gatvol (Afrikaans for fed up).”

That is all too true in KwaXimba, where unemployment is estimated at higher than the national rate of 32 per cent. Mzwandile Luthuli, 61, has voted for the ANC every time since 1994, and will do so again, but he is cross. “Where are the jobs?” he asks. “Ramaphosa promised he’d create jobs, but there are none.”

I pass on the message when I catch up with the president for a second time. He is fresh from delivering a potentially budget-busting homily promising a universal national healthcare system and an expansion of the social grants on which millions depend. When I ask him about the lack of jobs, he takes me back to the economy the ANC inherited after apartheid. It was, he says, “structured in a way that allowed few to participate”. The diagnosis is pretty accurate, but 30 years have passed since then. He sidesteps the dysfunctional recent record of the ANC’s economic policies by highlighting how it avoided taking the “extremely dangerous” path of nationalising everything — as advocated by the Economic Freedom Fighters and MK. But what about investment, I ask? “Yes,” the president responds, “investment . . . ” Then the spokesperson intervenes and he returns again to the party fold.

The election on May 29 will usher in the final chapter of Ramaphosa’s public life. The ANC has a two-term limit for party leader, so whatever happens he has to step down from leading the party in 2027 and from the presidency by 2029. Admirers hope he may yet get the chance to press ahead with reforming the party and point to recent “privatisation by stealth” of the electricity sector as a step forward. Four decades have passed since Bobby Godsell, then a bright young executive at Anglo American, faced Ramaphosa across the negotiating table. Godsell was impressed at the time and still wants to believe that, after skirting the brink of disaster, the ANC is being slowly turned around. “Ramaphosa is deeply committed to rapid economic growth,” Godsell says. “Yes, he could have acted more decisively, but you have to remember he had to spend a large part of his first term consolidating his base.”

The idea that the setbacks will prove to be teething pains for South Africa is a beguiling one, but it requires a leap of faith. The country still has much to shout about, including a strong democratic spirit, combative media, resilient judiciary and multiracial middle class. Anyone who watched Ramaphosa at work all those years ago would love to believe in a final act. But for all his previous fine deeds, he was always a projection of people’s dreams, and the ANC’s record makes clear that the time of heroic narratives has passed.

The ANC may yet get enough people out to vote to see it over 50 per cent. A former official says the most likely scenario is that the party gets about 45 per cent, making Ramaphosa a lame duck, and the ANC begins to manoeuvre him from power. “The best hope is that the country has five more years of this kind of muddle,” the ex-official says. The worst, he adds, is that a populist ANC faction joins the EFF and MK.

Outside the chief’s kraal, the little cattle trailer stands empty. In due course, I am told, a prime cut will be sent to the president. Ramaphosa is the last of the liberation titans to lead South Africa. For all his disappointments in office, he will be missed. But it is hard to imagine that this man, who had such vaulting ambitions, is happy with how everything has turned out. Towards the close of his day of campaigning, I ask what are the biggest regrets of his time in office. He pauses and suggests we meet to discuss this another time.

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