South Africa’s new President Cyril Ramaphosa

How do you begin to write about Cyril? You feel as though you have always known him. And yet, in truth, you have never met him. He is the bird that got away, having been dead square in the sights of the hunter’s gun several times.

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At several points along the way, starting from way back when you were in Medical School, following the dangerous fortunes of those who strove against the behemoth of Apartheid South Africa, you had been convinced that an ‘accident’ would happen, and you would wake up one day soon to hear that Cyril Ramaphosa was no more. In a corner of the dining hall at Alexander Brown Hall, in Ibadan, you would sit with your cronies Uzu and Jude and talk passionately about the inevitable night of the long knives in South Africa, when the black man would rise to reclaim his own. Unspoken in the hot air and post-prandial vituperation of your little band of armchair revolutionaries was the sad acceptance that there would be casualties in the struggle. Among these were likely to be popular figures such as the doughty street warrior Cyril, who you all admired. Uzu and Jude would nod their heads grimly as if Cyril was their prized property and they were already preparing their minds to let him go in a courageous concession to realpolitik.

You had agonized over his six-month stay at John Vorster Square, where he was incarcerated under the Terrorism Act. John Vorster Square was a notorious place of detention where people – mostly black, mostly male, who were perceived as constituting existential threats to the Apartheid state were held ‘for investigation’ at the pleasure of the state. Some of such detainees did not survive the ordeal, dying in mysterious circumstances, their deaths often explained away in implausible stories that were not designed, ab initio, to be believed.

Cyril survived.

The reason he was in prison was that he was one of the most effective mobilisers in the black struggle. His was a strong voice for the children of Soweto when on the 16th of June, 1976 they embarked on the Soweto Uprising, which involved school boycott and a series of demonstrations. The drama eventually culminated in the infamous Soweto Massacre. Protesting children in school uniform were gunned down by armed police in scenes that shocked and revolted the whole of mankind.

Much later, walking the streets of Soweto, visiting the schools where the children studied and where the protesters took off, many never to return, ending up in the museum where you were confronted by large vivid pictures of the massacre plastered on walls, you felt a sense of awe at the sheer courage that those children had displayed, face to face with the whole awesome might of the South African state. They were rejecting an education in Afrikaans, rather than English. They believed, rightly, that such education would entrench them perpetually as second-class citizens in the scheme of things.

For what felt like an eternity, you stood before the most compelling picture of all –the dying body of Hector Peterson after he was shot being carried by his colleague — Mbuyisa Makhubo — while his sister Antoinette Sithole ran alongside. It was a picture, and a symbol that would resonate throughout the world, and through the ages. In the minds of many people, that was the day Apartheid died. The subsequent events – over two decades, the freeing of Nelson Mandela from prison, the Transition talks, anchored principally by Cyril, the enthronement of the first black government in South Africa – those were just the icing on the cake.

You sought for a picture of Cyril among the montage. You could not locate one. There would be some reference to him buried somewhere in the effusive explanatory literature plastered all over the walls, for sure.

Cyril Ramaphosa had been born in Soweto in 1952. He attended Tshilidzi Primary School there, and later Sekano Ntoane High School. In 1972 he enrolled at the University of the North to study Law. There he joined the South African Students Organisation (SASO) and the Black Peoples Convention (BPC). Among the activities the students’ organization engaged in were acts of solidarity with the liberation movements that were then active in neighbouring countries of Mozambique and Angola, where Portuguese colonial rule was in the last throes of death. In 1974, he was detained under the Terrorism Act. He spent a year in solitary confinement.

When the Soweto Uprising came along, he was again arrested and fingered as one of the instigators of the students’ revolt.

Somewhat later, he would achieve even greater fame and clout as the founder and leader of the largest trade union in South Africa – the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). From that pedestal, he would confront the monster of Apartheid, standing eyeball to eyeball.

On the day you visited the museum in Soweto to soak in the pictures of horror and pain, you found your mind going again and again to Cyril. You had always been fascinated by his career and his struggle.

In your perception of the liberation struggle, there were many brave characters, living and dead, who stood out. A few of them even made cameo appearances in your living reality. One of such was Oliver Tambo. You would always remember the scene as he was welcomed enthusiastically by Robert Mugabe even as you watched, sitting on the grass with the masses when you visited Zimbabwe one year after its liberation from racist rule. The venue was the vast stretch of land a newly-empowered Mugabe had just designated as ‘Heroes Acre’, where one of the nation’s fallen heroes – Herbert Chitepo was being symbolically interred. It was mostly brown earth that day when Oliver Tambo visited, yet to be cemented over into the stone and mortar monstrosity it would later become. Mandela was in prison on Robben Island, and the prospect for his release – not to talk of his ascendancy to power, looked bleak, almost non-existent.

Following the liberation of Zimbabwe, the fight for South Africa was being seen in the circles that gathered that day on Heroes Acre, as well as even the discerning public in Africa, as ‘the last battle’. Tambo perhaps would eventually be enthroned as President after a long and merciless war would have brought the structures of civilization almost into extinction in the land. Stalwarts of the street, such as Cyril Ramaphosa, as well as stalwarts of the jungle war – the Umkhonto We Sizwe faced an uncertain survival prospect – so bitter would the final war be.

But History was not heading the way you all predicted. Oliver Tambo – the one that was ‘safe’ abroad, would soon be dead – of natural causes. Mandela would be released from prison. Cyril Ramaphosa – the cerebral, fearless street fighter and mobiliser, would lead Transition talks that would culminate in black majority rule.

Mandela would become President.

In Mandela’s own view, he was merely a figure to establish the symbolism of black power and the Rainbow Nation, to carry the mantle for a few short years, before handing over and retiring to his well-earned rest. In his mind’s eye, he had no doubt who the destiny of his beloved nation was to be handed over to, the safe hands that would carry the nation with its dreams and aspirations into the future. It would be the Unionist, the Lawyer, the one with street-cred who never left the street. It would be Cyril Ramaphosa.

Mandela would not live to see his choice and his vision for the future actualized. First, the party chose Thabo Mbeki, the son of his old friend in the struggle to be his Vice President and successor. Then Zuma – another type of street fighter, not educated, not cerebral but strong from the jungle war, and strong on the ground in the crucial base of Kwazulu Natal – would supplant the gentle Mbeki and play out a turbulent, crisis-ridden interregnum that would erode the moral authority of the party, scraping it to the barest bones.

But almost two and a half decades after the ascendancy of Mandela, his true heir has just emerged from the shadows and taken over the mantle.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge.

Facing a temporary snub from the party as it became clear he was not going to succeed Madiba immediately, Cyril had been ‘exiled’ into the world of High Commerce, like his friend and colleague, Tokyo Sexwhale and a few others. The ANC had formulated a deliberate strategy of ‘Black Empowerment’. This operated on the premise that moving the black population up from the grassroots would take several generations. Black Empowerment could jump-start the process by getting some black people into the commanding heights of strategic industries and private companies, with the active collaboration of powerful figures in the ‘white’ world, who recognized this as something that needed to be done in everybody’s ultimate best interest. This process, if it worked, would make some individuals extremely rich. Of course such wealth, technically, should be held in trust for the disadvantaged masses. They would be facilitators and mobilisers, this new class of ‘empowered’ leaders. They would also be powerful symbols of black ‘can do’.

Has the strategy worked?

Cyril is said to be worth half a billion dollars. Tokyo and a few others are extremely wealthy men. Is it truly understood that their ‘empowered’ wealth is held in trust, or has the script changed?

The one dark spot on Cyril’s curriculum vitae concerns the events around what became known as the Marikana Massacre. On 16th August, 2012, Police used deadly force to disperse a group of striking miners who were occupying a hilltop near Nkaneng shack settlement close to a mine. By the time the shooting ended, 34 miners lay dead. 78 of their fellows were injured. It was the single most lethal use of force by the police since the end of the apartheid era.

In review, nobody came out of the story smelling of roses. Anyone who followed the events on television and other media would have realised the protesters were armed with sharp objects and other deadly implements of war while they carried out their ‘protest’. They were anything but a band of innocent peaceful protesters. It would have taken very brave, or very naive policemen to try to impose order on such an assembly without the force of arms.

Was there excessive use of force by the police, in the service of the mine owners, who included Cyril? Was there criminality in the actions of the miners?

Cyril – the father of black Miners’ Unionism in South Africa, and now a member of the board that controls some of its biggest mines, was adjudged innocent by a subsequent panel of inquiry. In the third decade of the Rainbow Nation, it is time for the preferred heir of Mandela to step out and step up.

His whole life, perhaps even his latter-day Board-room experience, has been a training run for this assignment.

Will he succeed?

What he has going for him, even more than the support of the ANC, whose deciding vote was only marginal, is a street credibility based on people-struggle which cannot be equalled by any in his generation. Only he can stare down the noisy insurgents on the Left, such as Julius Malema, and take the steam out of noisy opposition for whom Jacob Zuma was an easy target. His credibility will give the party a bounce – at least for a time.

He will need to deal with the crime and the xenophobia that have afforded easy recourse for his troubled people who are having difficulties adjusting to the real world. He will need to redefine Black Empowerment, tackle poverty, find a formula for land redistribution – all these without rocking the economic boat and plunging the nation into recession and capital flight.

Can he do it?

Mandela obviously trusted him and believed he could find the answers. For the sake South Africa, and even all of Africa, Madiba had better be right in that judgement call.

So, here’s to you, Cyril, the true Cyril, whoever you may be, wherever you may have been lurking, all these many years. It is time to come out.