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Ramaphosa as Zuma's deputy?

Since the African National Congress's (ANC's) nominations process began, party branches have been increasingly suggesting former National Union of Mineworkers general secretary Cyril Ramaphosa for the post of party deputy president.

Some of these proposals may have an element of short-term politicking - just the suggestion that Ramaphosa could be ANC deputy president would put pressure on deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe to pin his colours to the mast on whether he will stand for president or stay where he is.

If Motlanthe decides to stay safely under the wing of President Jacob Zuma, then the post of deputy president will be closed to Ramaphosa. However, if Motlanthe makes a bid for the presidency, it would clear the way for Ramaphosa to re-enter front-line politics in a major position. That then raises the question of what role he would play as ANC deputy president and, possibly, deputy president of the republic. It also leads to questions about the position he could find himself in 2017.

Ramaphosa is famously difficult to read. He has become almost as big an enigma in our politics as Motlanthe himself.

The chairman of the nongovernmental organisation Freedom Under Law, retired judge Johann Kriegler, once put it crisply, asking: "Have you ever tried getting hold of Cyril? Anyone who knows him will tell you it's next to impossible."

However, it would be odd for Ramaphosa to be nominated without any kind of hint from him that he might be available.

It also appears that the nominations may have the slightest of nods from the Zuma camp.

The real relationship between a president and his deputy, often his greatest threat, can often be revealed through the roles and duties given to the deputy.

In the case of Thabo Mbeki and Zuma, it was clear that Mbeki used his power to assign duties that would show Zuma in a bad light. Zuma's position as chairman of the Moral Regeneration Movement put him in an uncomfortable position after claims were made about his private life.

In the case of Zuma, he has put Motlanthe in charge of the task team dealing with the proposed e-tolls in Gauteng. That is a job from which no one is likely to escape unscathed, due to the levels of public unhappiness, and government debt that are riding on the process.

Thus it would appear that the first indication of the real relationship between Zuma and Ramaphosa, should they turn out to be leading the ANC after Mangaung, could be shown by Zuma's actions. Until this point, Zuma appears to have acted in a way most likely to protect his own political interests, and has refrained from making decisions he feels may alienate parts of the party.

Ramaphosa, who may be used to a more decisive style of governing from his days in the trade unions, may find that frustrating. However, it would seem unlikely that Zuma would give him any power over things that matter, if he felt Ramaphosa could use that to strengthen his own power base.

However, Zuma may watch history very closely. Since the ANC was unbanned, it has become common practice for the party to elect the deputy leader as leader.

This would put Ramaphosa in prime position to take over the party after Zuma's second term ends in 2017.

Ramaphosa would surely be aware of this, and thus if he does make himself available for the position of deputy president, it is possible that this is his ultimate plan. Although, following ANC tradition, he would be likely to deny that.

As president, Ramaphosa might appear to have a very different style to Mr Zuma. He has been involved in business, and would appear to have a better grasp of what could lead to job creation. He would also appear to better understand the economy more generally. However, he would face the same problems that Zuma faces now, in that taking decisive action in the ANC tends to alienate various groups within it, which would force almost any leader to move very carefully.

While this may have ramifications for economic policy after 2017, it may not mean that issues such as the Limpopo textbooks scandal would necessarily be dealt with very differently. However, the real question, which is still to be publicly answered, is whether Motlanthe and Ramaphosa will run.

This column appeared in The Business Day.

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