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Is Cyril Ramaphosa another presidential chameleon?

By Benjamin Hale - posted Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Earlier this year South African President Jakob Zuma was recalled almost 10 years after he seized office and replaced by ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa. Though some have been optimistic about his tenure as president, there are many reasons to be sceptical or even cynical about a Ramaphosa presidency. Much like his predecessor, Ramaphosa is a political chameleon, a wildcard, with a reputation for contradictions; he is seen as business friendly but with a trade union pedigree, strongly anti-corruption but embedded in a corrupt political party, and a CEO president and champion of State Owned Enterprises (SOEs). However, whereas Zuma was dogged with nearly 800 allegations of corruption even prior to his presidency, Ramaphosa has largely remained untainted by corruption allegations, though a closer look at his rise to corporate success raises eyebrows.

In 1985, Cyril Ramaphosa stated categorically that 'the experience of the working class dictates that it is too late to save the free enterprise system in this country' (Adam, Slabbert & Moodley, 1998, p. 167). Yet within 10 years he became a corporate tycoon within the very system whose downfall he predicted. Ramaphosa was a radical student activist during the 1970s, later becoming the leader of the National Union of Metalworkers (NUM), playing a pivotal role in organising the 1987 national strike. After the fall of Apartheid, the ANC deployed Ramaphosa into big business as part of their Black Economic Empowerment strategy. Though Ramaphosa failed disastrously as a board member of the Anglo-American Corporation and the Molope Group, he benefitted neatly from the BEE program establishing himself as one of just over a handful of ultra-wealthy beneficiaries of the BEE program. During the 2000s, Ramaphosa used his position to further enrich himself through investment and board positions at Standard Bank and MTN, both of which faced accusations of extremely corrupt behaviour. The former was also accused of currency manipulation whilst the latter was accused of shifting over a billion dollars into offshore accounts and bribery in Iran.

However, though these developments are indeed alarming, it was Ramaphosa's role in the 2012 Marikana massacre that is the most concerning. By 2010, Ramaphosa had bought 9 percent of London-based mining house Lonmin through a holding company. and sat on the board of directors. Following a wildcat strike by metalworkers in Marikana, organised by Ramaphosa's former union NUM, Ramaphosa sent a number of emails urging 'concomitant action' against these 'plainly dastardly criminals' to 'address the situation'. This was immediately followed by the brutal murder of 34 mineworkers and serious injury of 78 others by the South African Police. Though Ramaphosa has been cleared of wrong-doing by the Farlam commission and since apologised, the commission also found that he 'created an environment conducive to the creation of tension and labour unrest'.


Given the above, Ramaphosa's rise to President of the Republic of South Africa on a platform of curbing corruption may seem disingenuous. This is especially troubling given thatRamaphosa was the chairperson of the inter-ministerial committee (IMC) on state-owned enterprises (SOEs) during a period of staggering SOE corruption. More recently, in late February Ramaphosa confirmed ANC deputy president David Mabuza as the deputy of the Republic despite ongoing allegations of corruption and, more concerningly, alleged involvement in political killings in Mpumalanga. Ramaphosa's appointment of Nhlanhla Nene to finance minister also bode's poorly for the poorest sections of the population, given that his 2015 budget effectively decreased social grants and greatly reduced restraints on those individuals seeking to permanently remove money offshore.

Much like his predecessor, President Ramaphosa is a political chameleon who has managed to enrich himself whilst building up political capital within the ANC, perhaps at the same time. However, unlike Zuma, Ramaphosa has managed to remain a relatively clean international image as a savvy entrepreneur promising to clean up the act of the ANC. However, despite his strong national liberation movement and union pedigree, Cyril Ramaphosa has decidedly shifted in favour of big business, best illustrated by his involvement in the 2012 Marikana massacre. Further, given his failure to combat corruption within government ministries and companies under his control his commitment to tackling corruption is highly dubious. After almost ten years under Zuma it is increasingly clear that South Africa cannot afford another political chameleon, especially when the costs being imposed on the poor are so devastating.

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About the Author

Benjamin Hale is an honours graduate and PhD candidate at Edith Cowan University in the field of politics and international relations with a specific focus on Africa.

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