McCormack Speaks

Mandela’s Chosen Successor: Ramaphosa’s Long Wait to Reignite South Africa’s Promise


by Padraig O’Malley, Moakley Chair of Peace and Reconciliation

Meyer, O'Malley and Ramaphosa (1993)

Roelf Meyer, Padraig O’Malley, and Cyril Ramaphosa, 1993

I met Cyril Ramaphosa on my first visit to South Africa in 1985. Ramaphosa was secretary general of the powerful National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), fresh off leading the largest strike in South African history. I met him again in 1990 after I began to document the South African transition from apartheid to democracy, and interviewed him on several occasions.

In 1993, the University of Massachusetts Boston, where I hold the John Joseph Moakley Chair of Peace and Reconciliation at the university’s John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, awarded Ramaphosa and Roelf Meyer, both of whom were the lead negotiators on the African National Congress (ANC) and National Party sides in the talks to end apartheid, honorary doctorates at its commencement ceremonies.

In 1997, at my behest, Ramaphosa and Meyer went to Belfast to meet with all the key negotiators in the Northern Ireland peace process. As a result, President Nelson Mandela hosted the Great Indaba (The Great “Gathering”) at Arniston, a secure military base in the Western Cape Province that same year. Negotiators from all parties in Northern Ireland and the principal negotiators from the multiparty talks in South Africa that ended apartheid participated. Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein’s lead negotiator, called it a “turning point.” A year later, the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement was signed. Subsequently, Cyril Ramaphosa was appointed one of the two interim decommissioning commissioners and I advised him on things Northern Irish.

In 2007-08, I worked in Iraq on bringing Shia, Sunni, Kurds, and Turkmen together to draw up a covenant that would set out the principles that would guide them in negotiations with each other and the mechanisms to ensure their implementation. The Iraqis were coached in this endeavor by negotiators from South Africa, including Ramaphosa and Northern Ireland, including Martin McGuinness, and after two meetings in Helsinki, Iraqis put their signatures to an agreement outlining 15 principals and 17 implementation mechanisms. Ramaphosa chaired the final session.

When Mandela died, Cyril Ramaphosa was chosen by the ANC to give the eulogy at the funeral services, which were televised worldwide. I had sent him a note with my condolences and he responded by asking me to scribble a few sentences for Mandela’s eulogy. When I heard those same words spoken by Ramaphosa at Madiba’s memorial service in Johannesburg in December 2013,  I shook with humility to be so honored.

On December 17, the ANC elected Ramaphosa as its president, opening the way for him to become president of South Africa in 2019 when Jacob Zuma’s second term is up. It has been a long wait–some 25 years since Mandela chose him as his successor and the ANC’s executive committee in a rebuke selected Thabo Mbeki, one of its own who had spent the struggle in exile, in his place.

Now Mandela, in whatever heaven he dwells, is smiling. For several years he watched from celestial space the undoing of his legacy and the disemboweling of the ANC as it was stripped of its moral standing, dragged through the gutter muck of corrosive corruption and cronyism, as bad as any apartheid government, under the scandal-ridden stewardship of Zuma.

Ramaphosa, former head of the powerful NUM who brought a quarter of a million mineworkers to the streets in 1986 and broke the back of the mining giant, Anglo American, chief negotiator for the ANC during the multi-party talks that ended apartheid, chairman of the Constitutional Convention, business tycoon, has the charisma, tenacity and skill to restore the luster of the ANC of Chief Albert Luthuli, O.R. Tambo, and Walter Sisulu, luminaries in the pantheon of freedom struggle.

The wicked gods played havoc with Mandela’s successors. Mbeki believed that HIV/AIDS was not a virus and refused to make anti-retroviral medicine available. As a result, some 300,000 South Africans needlessly died, according to a study by Harvard University–more deaths than all South Africans killed during 60 years of apartheid.

Zuma, who ousted Mbeki in 2006 as head of the ANC and subsequently as president of the country, corrupted the ANC and used government funds for private purposes. He developed a Mephistophelian relationship with the notorious Gupta brothers who, for all intents and purposes, established a shadow government, even having a say on who filled important ministries.

As Africa’s most developed economy with huge natural resources of gold and diamonds, a first-world infrastructure, and the capital of Africa’s financial services sector, South Africa was primed to jump growth in Southern Africa. Under Zuma, however, the economy collapsed–no recovery followed the Great Recession. Foreign investment has slowed to a crawl. Incompetence and ineptitude prevailed as cronies and relatives of the president’s extensive families (six wives) were appointed to manage important nodes of the economy in what amounted to “state capture.” Vital infrastructure has gone unattended. Black unemployment hovers at 25 percent while unemployment among the huge youth population stands at 34 percent. Townships are as dismal and overcrowded and short of essential services as they were during the apartheid era. The educational system is in shambles.

Zuma fired his finance minister Pravin Gordhan, regarded as his most competent minister widely admired for his probity, at the behest of the brothers and triggered a run on the rand. Black Economic Empowerment (BBE) became the preserve of a cabal in the higher echelons of the ANC and their friends. The country that branded its Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as the most effective way of promoting national reconciliation and restorative justice refused to arrest Omar al Bashir, the Sudanese president, for whom the International Criminal Court (ICC) has issued an arrest warrant.

Inequality among Blacks is increasing as has inequality between Blacks and Whites over the last seven years. Among many Whites, there was angst for the good old days of apartheid, which of course were not so good at all for millions of disenfranchised Blacks.

When Zuma ousted Mbeki, he forced him to resign as president of the country. He backed his former wife Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, once president of the African Union, in the contest against Ramaphosa because he was sure of indemnity from prosecution for the 783 criminal charges he faces when he leaves office. We should expect a deal with Ramaphosa: step down and no persecutions, stay until 2019, and leave yourself open to the consequences.

There will, of course, be the naysayers. During a strike in 2012 at Marikana by miners employed by the mining giant Lonmin, the police shot dead 34 miners. Ramaphosa’s actions as a board member called into question whether he sided with the company. He apologized and helped the families of the dead miners. But in an era where the quality of leaders in so many countries is so poor, Ramaphosa stands out for his charisma and enormous potential, at home in townships and board rooms, gifted with the common touch. He can provide the transformational leadership to reignite South Africa’s promise, provide the vision that will see the dark clouds that have hovered over the country during the Zuma years part as the rainbow re-emerges, a rainbow arc once again for the rainbow country.


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