The return of the Chosen One
In possibly the most historic moment in South Africa, broadcast all over the world, Nelson Mandela returned to his people, walking out of Victor Verster prison in Paarl in February 1990, clasping Winnie's hand, his right fist in the air. In that unforgettable footage, Cyril Ramaphosa is seen among the group of people flanking Mandela, clearly looking like a man in charge.
The next year he became the ANC secretary general at the party's national conference in Durban. With the ANC headed for the passages of power then, he was a man on the rise - smart, silver-tongued, passionate. But there were obvious tensions between Ramaphosa and Thabo Mbeki, two aspiring leaders of the party who ascended on divergent paths during the liberation struggle.
Mbeki was the understudy of the ANC's longest-serving president, Oliver Tambo, and was groomed in exile to be the heir to the throne. Ramaphosa was a founder of the giant National Union of Mineworkers and became its first general secretary, which profiled him in the trade union movement as a formidable leader in the struggle against Apartheid.
Their paths were to collide, leaving only one as the victor. That turned out to be Mbeki.
But while the internal struggles of the ANC battered Ramaphosa, South Africa became enchanted by him. During the negotiations to democracy and the process of drafting a new Constitution for the country, Ramaphosa was a central and colourful character. His rapport with his opposite number in the National Party, Roelf Meyer, animated the defining story of the age. His easy-going nature and charisma helped to reduce the friction around these delicate processes. He also became a political personality who earned trust and confidence, and when the final Constitution was produced, the country knew it was shaped through great care and hard work by Ramaphosa and others.
But the flaw in Ramaphosa's character became evident when he could not deal with Mbeki's ascension to the ANC presidency and, as a result, withdrew from active political life. It was well known that Mandela preferred him as his heir, but the ANC wanted its crown prince and Tambo's protégé instead.
Ramaphosa stayed on in the ANC National Executive Committee (NEC), getting the most votes at the 1997 national conference, but stayed out of the many battles and wrangles which beset the party since his departure. In 2001 he was drawn into bizarre allegations, along with Tokyo Sexwale and Mathews Phosa, of involvement in a plot to overthrow Mbeki. While Sexwale and Phosa revealed their anger at Mbeki and his acolytes for concocting and selling the story, Ramaphosa maintained his composure and steered clear of the controversy.
Attempts to draw him back into the ANC senior leadership during the height of the Mbeki-Zuma battle proved fruitless - Ramaphosa was shaping a massive business empire and seemed to have no designs on high political office. He also gave indications that if the ANC did want him back, he did not want to have to contest for it.
The battle of Mangaung however provided the platform for his return. The refusal of Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe to accede to pressure from supporters of President Jacob Zuma to strike a no-contest leadership deal to maintain the status quo led to a move to shaft Motlanthe. The Zuma camp needed a candidate for ANC deputy president who could crush any other contenders and be a game-changer.
Ramaphosa proved to be the most worthy candidate and someone who could prop up Zuma's flagging leadership.
Whoever it was in the Zuma camp (rumour has it that it was KwaZulu-Natal Premier and ANC provincial chairman Zweli Mkhize) who secured Ramaphosa's co-operation, knew that having the businessman on the Zuma ticket would make their campaign for Zuma's re-election unbeatable. And unbeatable it was, as Ramaphosa ignited the election battle and left Sexwale and Phosa in the dust. He even had more votes for the position of deputy president than Zuma mustered for president.
The problem Ramaphosa has is that while Zuma's backers were determined to have him as deputy president in order to make up for the president's numerous leadership weaknesses and shortcoming, Zuma himself does not respect him. However Zuma agreed to Ramaphosa's candidacy on his slate when he realised it was a way to outsmart and punish Motlanthe. But Zuma, like his predecessor, is gripped with paranoia about plots against him.
Zuma will know that, now that the ANC has a much more worthy candidate for head of state, his chance of topping the ANC's election ticket in 2014 is diminishing, particularly with the many controversies besetting his administration and his plummeting popularity outside the ANC. The return of Ramaphosa to the ANC leadership has been welcomed in many quarters and there is new hope that his presence might help to undo the corrosion and leadership weaknesses.
It will not take long for Zuma to feel threatened by Ramaphosa. Already there are indications that Ramaphosa would play a prominent role in the new setup with additional powers that would be far greater than what Motlanthe had. It would be a signal that the ANC does not in fact have confidence in his leadership and wants to bring Ramaphosa in as an intervention. Zuma will not like that.
Ramaphosa also faces an uphill battle from the left in the alliance. Cosatu and the SACP supported Zuma's re-election but did not want him to replace Motlanthe. They felt safe with Motlanthe but distrust Ramaphosa, believing he has traded in his worker credentials and now represents the interests of business. The business sector and investor community, on the other hand, is ecstatic and relieved by Ramaphosa's election as ANC deputy president, and the prospect of him replacing Zuma in the near future.
The blight on Ramaphosa's reputation now is his conduct around the events building up to the massacre at Marikana in August. Ramaphosa is a shareholder in Lonmin, whose workers embarked on a wildcat strike for higher wages, which then led to the police shooting of striking mineworkers. Early next year he is set to testify before the commission of inquiry into the massacre after his communication with government leaders and Lonmin executives was revealed at the commission. In one damning email, he called for "concomitant action" against the "criminal" protesters, which is perceived to be one of the reasons the police reacted with excessive force against the strikers, leaving 34 of them dead and 78 injured.
Ramaphosa also courted controversy by bidding R18-million for a buffalo, which was perceived to be a crass display of his affluence. He has since apologised for this.
But overall, Ramaphosa has maintained an improbably squeaky-clean business and political image. Perhaps it was in anticipation of a gallant return to the top of the ANC, or perhaps he was just better than most in managing his affairs to stay out of the spotlight.
This week he made an extraordinary political comeback. But his challenge now will be to inspire confidence and repair the tattered image of the ANC while appearing not to pose too much of a threat to Zuma. He also needs to be able to stay out of the factional battles which are tearing the ANC apart. It will be a delicate egg dance which could earn him the biggest prize of all, the presidency of South Africa.
Mandela's Chosen One could just be the answer to the country's morass. Or he could become yet another victim of the ANC's propensity to eat its own. Only time will tell.
This column appeared in The Daily Maverick.