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An Elite South African Who Vows to Fight for the Ordinary Citizen

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JOHANNESBURG — A few months ago, Cyril Ramaphosa, in line to become South Africa’s next president, did what many politicians do at pivotal points in their careers.

He released a book.

The book told of one of his passions — his love for a Ugandan breed of royal cattle that he imported to South Africa at great expense. Anticipating criticism of his wealth in a country where millions still live in shacks, Mr. Ramaphosa argued at his book launch that the cattle were not meant as trophies for the elite like him, but to help struggling black farmers in South Africa.

Now, Mr. Ramaphosa, the former labor leader who Nelson Mandela had hoped would succeed him as president, has an even trickier argument to make as the nation’s next leader.

Mr. Ramaphosa is a business tycoon, one of South Africa’s wealthiest men. To many here, he represents a kind of royalty of the African National Congress, an upper class that has grown removed from the average South African that the party still claims to champion.

Yet he vows that as president he will work for the ordinary citizen, root out the country’s debilitating corruption and convince a highly skeptical public that, under him, the governing African National Congress can whittle away at the gaping inequality that has enraged millions of citizens.

Mr. Ramaphosa posing for a selfie with guests at a presidential gala dinner in Johannesburg last year.CreditWikus de Wet/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

As a union organizer decades ago, Mr. Ramaphosa founded the National Union of Mineworkers, winning mineworkers benefits and better working conditions. Years later, though, he switched sides and sat on the board of a mining company, drawing criticism for his role in a massacre of wildcat strikers.

After being overlooked as Mr. Mandela’s successor, he went into business and helped draft new policies to expand a black entrepreneurial class. But Mr. Ramaphosa never shied from using his political ties to accumulate vast wealth for himself, and over the years, critics have said the program rewarded only a small class of black South Africans with ties to the A.N.C.

When Mr. Ramaphosa re-entered politics as deputy president a few years ago, he spoke of corruption as “a cancer” and “a monster,” and he later pushed through a new minimum wage law. Yet, he stayed largely quiet as critics lashed out at President Jacob Zuma’s scandal-ridden administration — a sign, to some, that he was too much of an insider to reform the party or the nation.

“For those who were hoping that Ramaphosa would return to the A.N.C. as a new broom, sweeping the party clean with a barnstorming assault on its corrupt establishment, years of disappointment lay ahead,” wrote Ray Hartley, a journalist, in his book, “Ramaphosa: The Man Who Would Be King.”

But to Mr. Ramaphosa’s supporters, he was, as always, playing the long game — waiting to succeed Mr. Zuma and accumulate the power he needs to change South Africa.

Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa was born in 1952 in Johannesburg, to a police sergeant and a domestic worker. He became politically active in high school and was arrested on charges involving leading a student protest while in college. He served 11 months in solitary confinement in a Pretoria prison.

Mr. Ramaphosa, left, when he was the general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, at a news conference during a miners’ strike in 1987.CreditSelwyn Tait/The Life Images Collection, via Getty Images

After earning a law degree, Mr. Ramaphosa became a labor organizer, turning the National Union of Mineworkers into the nation’s biggest trade union. He rubbed shoulders as easily with South Africa’s white oligarchs as with the men he represented.

“He used intimidation, charm, humor in rapid succession at the negotiating table,” Anthony Butler, a scholar and the author of a biography, “Cyril Ramaphosa,” said recently in The Daily Maverick. “He inspired almost awe among his own activists within the union structures because of his exceptional calm under pressure.”

After the apartheid government lifted the ban on the A.N.C. and freed Mr. Mandela in 1990, Mr. Ramaphosa, just shy of 40, became the party’s secretary general. Under Mr. Mandela, he played a critical role in negotiating the peaceful transition from apartheid to democratic rule in 1994, and he also helped draft the new Constitution.

Influential A.N.C. leaders who had been in exile successfully pushed one of their own, Thabo Mbeki, to succeed Mr. Mandela. So Mr. Ramaphosa left politics for business, though he remained closely involved with the A.N.C.

He quickly became one of the most prominent members of the new black elite. He sat on many corporate boards and acquired interests in many sectors — including mining, finance, South Africa’s McDonald’s restaurants and Coca-Cola bottling plants — where his high-level ties to the A.N.C. proved useful.

He was involved in drafting the new Black Economic Empowerment program, aimed at encouraging the growth of a black entrepreneurial class and skills. Still, in 2012, Mr. Ramaphosa spoke of the slow economic improvement among black South Africans since the end of apartheid.

Nelson Mandela, left, and Andrew Mlangeni, right, a former political prisoner, talking to Mr. Ramaphosa in 1990.CreditPhilip Littleton/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“Could it have moved quicker in 18 years?” he said. “My answer is no. Our expectations were far too high. To get education to sink deep into the minds of a nation takes a generation and more.”

Mr. Ramaphosa’s ties to a mining company, Lonmin, made him, in the minds of many South Africans, the symbol of an A.N.C. elite that had lost touch with its base — a sellout, some said simply.

In 2012, Mr. Ramaphosa, as a member of Lonmin’s board, said a wildcat strike in the town of Marikana in which 10 people were killed was “dastardly criminal and must be characterized as such.” He added, “In line with this characterization, there needs to be concomitant action to address this situation.”

The next day, the police intervened, killing 34 workers, in the worst case of official violence since the end of apartheid. Mr. Ramaphosa was accused of using his political influence to press for a police crackdown, though an official inquiry into the massacre eventually absolved him of guilt.

“What Marikana gives us is an opportunity — it has come at great cost — to actually start afresh,” Mr. Ramaphosa said in an interview in 2012. “Marikana is a huge wake-up call.”

A few months after the massacre, having become one of the richest men on the continent, with a fortune estimated at $450 million, Mr. Ramaphosa re-entered politics full-time. He was overwhelmingly elected deputy president of the A.N.C., serving directly under Mr. Zuma.

Mr. Ramaphosa, center, when he was newly elected deputy president of the African National Congress in 2012.CreditStephane De Sakutin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

When Mr. Zuma made him the nation’s deputy president in 2014, Mr. Ramaphosa became the heir apparent to South Africa’s presidency.

To many, Mr. Ramaphosa appeared to be biding his time, simply waiting for Mr. Zuma to complete his second and last term in office. As deputy, he oversaw the formulation of a new minimum wage, whose effects are still unclear, but left little mark on policy.

More troubling to many was that Mr. Ramaphosa publicly supported his boss or stayed quiet, even when Mr. Zuma drew criticism for the kind of corruption Mr. Ramaphosa decries. In photos, he was often seen standing next to Mr. Zuma, a wide smile across his face.

Mmusi Maimane, the leader of the main opposition Democratic Alliance, said Mr. Ramaphosa was “at best a silent deputy president, and at worst a complicit one.”

It was only last year — when it was clear Mr. Ramaphosa would not secure Mr. Zuma’s support to succeed him in the party and in the government — that Mr. Ramaphosa began publicly distancing himself from Mr. Zuma. When Mr. Zuma dismissed a widely respected finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, Mr. Ramaphosa criticized the decision as “unacceptable.”

In the weeks leading up to the A.N.C.’s electoral conference in December, Mr. Ramaphosa started speaking out forcefully against corruption in government. In a major speech, he said that South Africa’s economy had “been undermined over the last decade by a failure of leadership and misguided priorities.”

Jacob Zuma, center, and Mr. Ramaphosa, left, arriving for an A.N.C. rally in 2016 in Johannesburg.CreditGianluigi Guercia/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

By then, Mr. Zuma was openly backing his former wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, to succeed him as party leader. Like her husband, Ms. Dlamini-Zuma espoused economic populism, pushing for the need for “radical economic transformation.” She called for transferring slices of South Africa’s economic pie from whites to blacks; Mr. Ramaphosa’s emphasis was on growing the whole pie.

After Mr. Ramaphosa’s election as party leader in mid-December, his camp began pressing to remove Mr. Zuma as the country’s president as soon as possible.

In recent weeks, Mr. Ramaphosa chipped away at Mr. Zuma’s support with an undeniable argument: The prospects of the party and its members would be better in a government led by Mr. Ramaphosa. Sticking with Mr. Zuma would be bad — for everyone — in the next elections in 2019.

Like all good negotiators, Mr. Ramaphosa no doubt found points to make. Identified with South Africa’s urban and business elite, he visited rural areas and traditional leaders, including Mr. Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu Natal.

Perhaps he even handed out copies of his new book, “Cattle of the Ages,’’ in which he ruminates on how he, a city boy, learned late in life the spiritual value of cattle and of his ancestral village, Khalavha, in rural northern South Africa.

As he grew up in the city, “the only encounter I had with cattle was buying meat at the local butchery,” Mr. Ramaphosa wrote.

“But I guess in every man is his father, and his father’s father, and his father before that — and so it always goes. Somewhere in the depths of my soul is the connection my father had with his cattle, the hills of Khalavha and his people.”

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