South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa, union organizer, negotiator, constitution drafter, industrialist and mining magnate, is off to a fast start as his country’s fourth post-apartheid president. He needs to be, given the Augean stable he inherits from Jacob Zuma whose by-the-rules sacking he adroitly engineered in early February.
Zuma, a populist with a culturally conservative rural base, handed his family and friends the keys to South Africa’s treasury and let them drive Africa’s most advanced economy into the ditch, leaving it almost as wrecked as it was in the dying days of apartheid. Unemployment is at levels last experienced in the U.S. in the 1930s. Per capita GDP is falling. With Moody’s threatening to downgrade South Africa’s rand-denominated debt to junk, there is little juice to prime the pump.
If anyone is up to the challenge, it is Ramaphosa, whom I first met in 1983 when he was successfully building South Africa’s National Union of Mineworkers to represent workers in the gold, platinum and other mines then at the heart of the South African economy. It was a remarkable feat against impossible odds.
The South Africa mining industry’s health and safety record at the time was appalling with 600 or more deaths annually in the gold mines alone. I was running the Occupational Health and Safety Law Center in Washington and the union sought our help. Virtually all the victims were black, treated as disposable and barred from skilled jobs that required certification, including foreman. They lived without wives or family in huge fenced-off camps under armed guard. Discipline was brutal.
Ramaphosa was not what I expected. He had endured extended spells of solitary confinement for his politics but retained his sense of humor. Was he worried the authorities would have us watched? I asked.He laughed. “You can be sure they will follow you, tap your phone and know of every contact you make. But they’re as dumb and mistake-prone as we are, so they will screw it up just like we do.”We drove at breakneck speed (he is a notoriously bad driver) to one of South Africa’s largest gold mines, where he invited me to join his miners for lunch in their segregated mess hall. An armed guard halted us: No whites allowed.As if on cue, a phalanx of 300 miners appeared out of nowhere. Ramaphosa calmly told the guard I was his guest. The guard looked at the phalanx and stood aside.Over stew, I said that had been a little unsettling.Simply part of the transition from the old South Africa to the new, my host chuckled.For the next several years, we worked on a safety program for his members. I watched Ramaphosa emerge as the ANC’s lead negotiator in the bloody but ultimately miraculous process that led to Nelson Mandela’s election in 1994. He would go on to perform the same role in the drafting of South Africa’s new constitution.His formidable strengths as a negotiator and organizer, his ability to out-prepare adversaries and his mastery of strategic patience earned him the respect of mine owners and politicians alike.Mandela hoped Ramaphosa would succeed him, but the job went to Thabo Mbeki. Ramaphosa, a lawyer by training with a strong entrepreneurial bent — he launched a construction company before becoming a labor organizer — turned his attention to becoming a captain of industry and to seeing that the commanding heights of the South African economy began to look less like the old South Africa.Critics complain he has accumulated wealth while the mass of South Africans remains locked in poverty. If so, one might equally condemn Warren Buffett and Jeff Bezos for failing to solve the problem of poverty and inequality in this country.
Ramaphosa, a “pragmatic visionary” in the phrase of one biographer, comes superbly equipped. He has dealt successfully with South Africa’s most daunting dilemmas from a uniquely wide range of perspectives. He has the humility not to think of himself as the sole savior of the country. His sense of humor will keep him grounded in the long battles ahead. And polls show he has the support he needs to face down radicals and populists inside and outside the ANC.
Stimulus, Ramaphosa recognizes, must come in the shape of private investment, which means restoring business confidence. With the return of ministers Zuma fired for being honest, competent and respectful of reality, he has put in place a solid economic team.
He still has to be wary of a backlash from the left. In his final weeks in office, Zuma tried to save himself by promising free university education, a piece of crowd-pleasing fiscal folly Ramaphosa will now have to walk back. He will also need to reassure markets that his heavily hedged lip-service in support of uncompensated land expropriation is just that, and a constitutional impossibility besides.
Detoxing South Africa after the Zuma years will be hard, but with Cyril Ramaphosa there is hope. Rest assured he will not be spending his early mornings tweeting mindlessly about whatever pops into his head.
Best of luck to this solid, honorable man and his country.Davitt McAteer, an attorney and author, headed the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration from 1992 to 2000.