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South Africa: Waiting for the President-in-waiting

South Africa: Waiting for the President-in-waiting

Cyril Ramaphosa – agitator, activist, negotiator, leader and now South Africa’s Deputy President. Is his succession to the top office when Zuma leaves a forgone conclusion or could he slip up on some banana skins? Tom Nevin throws the bones.

 In December this year, Cyril Ramaphosa will have been South Africa’s Deputy President for two years. His part in the political game as President Jacob Zuma’s short stop has been unremarkable, but such is the fate of deputies wherever they are, so South Africa is no exception.

Many wonder, however, why the appointment was so long in coming; it’s well known that Nelson Mandela had his eye on ‘the young Turk’ heavily favouring him as his right-hand man. But politics and ideology have a way of upsetting such apple carts and Ramaphosa was passed over, much to Mandela’s sadness and disappointment.

Ramaphosa sold a 25% share to the Chinese in the Shanduka conglomerate he created, for R245m ($25m) so money is not the issue (especially at a deputy President’s salary of not much more than R2m ($200,000) a year)

For Ramaphosa, it was not for the want of trying or for having the most impeccable qualifications – academic, administrative and corporate. After less than three years in parliament, Ramaphosa resigned in 1997, first joining New Africa Investments and then starting the Shanduka Group.

And so, two decades on, the political rabble rouser, organiser extraordinaire, thorn in Apartheid’s flesh and massively successful businessman finally finds himself at Zuma’s side as South Africa’s technocrat politician-in-waiting. The big question is: waiting for what?

It’s unlikely that Ramaphosa would want to play second fiddle for no good reason. He sold a 25% share to the Chinese in the Shanduka conglomerate he created, for R245m ($25m) so money is not the issue (especially at a Deputy President’s salary of not much more than R2m ($200,000) a year).

So it is tempting to speculate that he is on track as South Africa’s next President. Zuma is in his second term and that means he must step down in three years, leaving a vacant throne, probably with Ramaphosa’s name on it.

Logical choice

Such a succession won’t happen seamlessly and the infighting could be messy, such is the currently divided nature of the party. But, if it comes to that, Ramaphosa’s long and impressive CV shows he is more than a match when it comes to mixing it with the toughest opponents.

South Africa’s Presidents have been a curious assortment. Nelson Mandela was the first and, for many, his term was all too short, Thabo Mbeki was the consummate academic and distant to the point of being out of touch with the people, and Zuma is often cast as being more style than substance. 

South Africa has never had a hard-headed businessman at the helm and perhaps that is what it will take to set the ship of state on a steady economic and development course. Business and investor confidence is what the country most needs.

To a large degree, Ramaphosa keeps a low profile. Every now and then, however, he says something interesting, to the point that it fires hope and reassurance in the hearts and minds of the doubtful.

A notable instance happened recently when he vociferously championed media freedom. The press, especially, had been coming under fire from mainly hostile government quarters. He obviously had the President’s blessing when he clearly spelt out the government’s attitude towards the media.

“Continue to be critical,” he said. “Speak your minds to the extent that it balances the story of hope, progress and missed opportunities. Empower us to understand our world and our own deficiencies. Occasionally you must annoy us for we do not pretend to be saints and to know it all.”

At the same time, he added, “I would urge you to tell the story of a South Africa that, despite all its challenges, is emerging from the darkness of oppression and division into a new dawn of peace, freedom, equality and prosperity. Give us an account of an African continent that is growing and developing, and beginning to take its rightful place in the world.”

For many, Ramaphosa is the logical choice of South Africa’s next President. All the boxes have been ticked and the package neatly presented. He is urbane and diplomatic, has an impeccable business background and his struggle credentials perfectly fit the bill.

His biggest challenge to overcome if he is to wear the President’s crown is how he deals with the powerful party faction leaders arrayed against him. Should he deal successfully with them, then he will indeed be an able leader for South Africa.

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Written by Tom Nevin

Tom Nevin is a South African journalist, researcher and author and contributes to a selection of publications in South Africa and abroad. He is associate editor of London-based African Business and editor of Business Word Botswana. He is leading a programme that actively promotes small and micro power projects as a first step in encouraging the economic upliftment of the continent rural poor.

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