Ramaphosa, Cyril 1952–
Cyril Ramaphosa 1952–
Secretary-general of the African National Congress
One of the foremost among the younger generation of South Africa’s black leaders, Cyril Ramaphosa began making his mark upon the antiapartheid movement in his early thirties. He came to prominence as head of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). The reputation he earned as a tough, skillful negotiator and as an effective administrator for NUM led to his election as secretary-general of the African National Congress (ANC) just as the ANC was preparing to enter talks with the white minority government on constitutional reform.
Ramaphosa was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and grew up in the nearby black township of Soweto. Reflecting on his middle class upbringing, Ramaphosa told Remer Tyson of the Detroit Free Press, “As I grew up, we didn’t have hunger in my home. It was a pretty comfortable type of life we led…. You didn’t really feel the daily ravages of the apartheid system. [Yet] you knew that on a global basis we were oppressed as a people.” Still, personal encounters with apartheid were unavoidable. Ramaphosa recounted to New York Times reporter Sheila Rule how as a boy of eight he was kicked into a ditch by a white soldier who was occupying Soweto in the aftermath of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, in which police shot and killed 69 blacks demonstrating against apartheid. In his teens, Ramaphosa was once arrested for a violation of the pass laws requiring South African blacks to carry identification and work papers at all times.
Unlike many black South Africans, however, Ramaphosa had the opportunity to get an education. He attended high school in Soweto, and at the age of 17 was sent to a boarding school in the northernmost province, Transvaal, to complete his secondary education. In 1972 he registered at the University of the North, having decided to pursue a career as a lawyer. While at the university, he became active in politics, joining the South African Students’ Organization, a militant group that was eventually banned but has been credited with giving birth to the antiapartheid student movement. He also joined the Student Christian Movement, an organization that addressed social, political, and religious issues, and by 1974 he was chairman of the University of the North’s chapters of both groups.
The same year Ramaphosa helped organize a rally at the university in support of neighboring nation Mozambique’s liberation group, Frelimo, which sought to free its country
Born Matamelala Cyril Ramaphosa, November 17, 1952, in Johannesburg, South Africa; son of Samuel (a policeman) and Erdmuth Ramaphosa; married first wife (divorced); second wife’s name, Nomazizi. Education: Attended the University of the North, South Africa, 1972-74; University of South Africa, B. Proc., 1981.
Apprenticed to two law firms in Johannesburg, 1974-81; Council of Unions of South Africa, legal adviser, 1981-82; National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), general secretary, 1982-91; African National Congress (ANC), secretary-general, 1991—.
Addresses: c/o African National Congress of South Africa, 801 Second Ave., Room 605, New York, NY 10017.
from Portuguese rule. The rally brought him to the attention of the authorities; he was subsequently arrested under South Africa’s Terrorism Act, legislation that permitted detention without trial. Imprisoned in Pretoria Central Prison for 11 months, Ramaphosa spent nearly all of his term in solitary confinement. “Being in solitary is one of the most trying times any one could ever go through,” he told Tyson. “All you try to do is transplant yourself out of the cell…imagining what things will be like when you are released and imagining what things will be like in a new South Africa.”
Upon Ramaphosa’s release in 1975, the University of the North refused to readmit him. Nevertheless, he took a clerk position with a Johannesburg law firm and continued participating in political activities. He joined the Black People’s Convention, one of many groups in the Black Consciousness movement founded by Stephen Biko. Members of the movement held the belief that blacks alone must overthrow apartheid and build a new South Africa, as opposed to the multiracial approach espoused by the ANC.
At that time, Ramaphosa, the grandson of a diamond mineworker, planned to work in the mines, which he considered to be the heart of the apartheid system. He theorized to Tyson, “If I really wanted to experience life, I should go to the mines, because that is where our people were being oppressed.” But before he could carry out his plan, Soweto and other townships erupted in protest, and in June of 1976 Ramaphosa, like many other activists, was arrested once more. This time he was detained for six months. Upon release he decided to renew his law studies, enrolling at the University of South Africa, from which he graduated in 1981.
Ramaphosa was poised to become a successful lawyer, but his experiences as a clerk and as an apprentice at twlaw firms had disillusioned him about the private practice of law. Rule explained in the New York Times, “[Ramaphosa] came to realize that while he would be able to serve the people, he would be serving only those who could afford to pay. He chose not to become a ‘mercenary,’ in his words, and instead decided to make what he believed could be a real contribution.” He had also become convinced that the Black Consciousness ideology had run its course and that multiracialism offered the best prospects for change. Since most antiapartheid organizations were banned at the time, trade unions were virtually the only legal vehicle through which blacks could work for social change. Ramaphosa, therefore, joined the legal department of the Council of Unions of South Africa (CUSA), a black labor federation. In August of 1982, when CUSA decided to form a union of black mineworkers, Ramaphosa was asked to head the organizing committee.
Mining, South Africa’s most important industry, has always been heavily dependent on black labor. Black workers were paid as little as one-fifth as much as whites and were kept from advancement. Most mineworkers were black, but the higher paying jobs as miners—persons qualified to handle explosives—were reserved for whites. Black workers were required to live under poor, slavish conditions: employees were housed in single-gender hostels separated from spouses, often located far from their families; leaves of absence for visits home were very limited; laborers suffered inadequate safety precautions; and no pension funds were allocated. Ramaphosa, who expressed regret that he had never worked in a mine, began his campaign by sneaking into one and found condition “just too terrible to even imagine that people could live there,” he disclosed in the Detroit Free Press. “I guess that is what inspired me to fight for the miners, to see that I can actually make a contribution, making their life a little better.”
At the union’s first conference that December he was elected general secretary. The National Union of Mineworkers started out with 6,000 members representing eight mines; by 1985 the number had grown to 115,000 individuals, and by 1987 NUM represented 340,000 workers, making it the largest union in the country. It was the first black union since 1946 to be established in the mining industry and the first to be recognized by the South African Chamber of Mines without government registration.
Ramaphosa quickly made it clear that NUM would be an activist union. In South Africa: No Turning Back Shula Marks and Stanley Trapido reported Ramaphosa’s belief that “management should take heed that the NUM is prepared to take up any issue be it wages, be it political issues, be it safety, and it could mobilise workers around any issue, virtually.” The mine owners, who had successfully blocked black unions for decades, did not take NUM seriously at first. Ramaphosa mused, “They probably felt that we did not know what we were letting ourselves in for, and they did not believe that the workers in the industry could be unionised,” according to Phillip van Niekerk in the same book. Van Niekerk attributed Ramaphosa’s success where others had failed to his “extraordinary strategic skills” and his willingness to use “a wide range of tactics—among them legal action. The union attended safety enquiries and won reinstatement for unfairly dismissed workers, for example. This provided a shield for the union, which could win perceptible and well-publicised victories even while numerical support was still thin.”
Despite being a seasoned negotiator, Ramaphosa had not yet participated in negotiations on as large a scale as those involving the South African mining industry. NUM’s first contract talks ended with the union accepting the owners’ wage offer unmodified, something Ramaphosa said would never happen again. He made good on his promise the next year; after the workers voted overwhelmingly in favor of a strike, the Anglo American Corporation returned to the bargaining table with an improved offer—a small gain, yet the first time that a mining company had been compelled to concede anything to a black union.
In 1985 management outmaneuvered the NUM, resulting in an unsuccessful strike lasting less than 48 hours. The following year the union made a show of strength by calling out 320,000 miners in a one-day strike to mourn 177 workers killed in a fire. By 1987 Ramaphosa felt it was time to mount a major challenge. The union demanded a 30 percent pay increase and improved benefits; though the companies made some concessions on benefits, they stuck to their initial wage offer of a 17 to 23 percent increase. Some believed that the companies, alarmed by the union’s rapid growth, hoped to discourage expansion while they still could. The union’s motives were also complex—“a just struggle for a living wage and improved working conditions”—were Ramaphosa’s words as stated in U.S. News & World Report, but political stakes existed as well. At a time when trade unions were virtually the only legal organizations representing the aspirations of South African blacks, a massive strike by mineworkers would be a signal to the government that black demands could not be suppressed or ignored indefinitely.
The unions themselves were under attack; some labor leaders had been arrested under the state of emergency that was declared in 1985, and others had been attacked and even murdered under mysterious circumstances. In May of 1987, the offices of the Council of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) were bombed in what was described as a professional paramilitary operation. Ramaphosa had never been reticent about his view of the union as a political organization as well as an economic one; in his opinion, apartheid had politicized every aspect of black life in South Africa. Under Ramaphosa’s leadership NUM had instigated boycotts in support of political demands, and he had considered using a work slowdown to reduce gold production, a move that would intensify the effect of international sanctions against South Africa.
Mounting economic and political tension made a confrontation inevitable. The showdown finally occurred in August of 1987, when 340,000 mineworkers walked out, thereby stopping production at half of South Africa’s gold mines and one-fifth of the coal mines. The cost to the industry was estimated to exceed $10 million a day. Ironically the union’s main adversary, the giant Anglo American Corporation, had been considered a liberal force in South Africa, generally supporting unionization and pressing the government to loosen some of apartheid’s restrictions. Faced with a massive strike, however, they cracked down, and Anglo American security forces clashed with strikers at the mines. Nine mineworkers died in the violence during the three-week strike.
Ramaphosa was forced to call an end to the strike without winning the union’s demands. He was criticized for calling the walkout too early—more than half of South Africa’s mineworkers were still unorganized and NUM had not yet accumulated a strike fund—as well as for risking a major strike for goals that were political as much as economic. “We did not win and the [opposition] did not lose,” he admitted, according to van Niekerk, but the impact of the first sustained legal strike by black workers was far-reaching nonetheless. Inspiring the beleaguered antiapartheid movement, the effort ensured that black unions could never again be taken lightly and demonstrated the strength black South Africans could muster. Ramaphosa also earned the respect of his opponents. Johann Liebenberg, the mineowners’ chief negotiator, informed Time: “I have the highest regard for him. He is very astute and sophisticated—a very capable leader.”
The strike also thrust Ramaphosa to the forefront of the younger black leaders active in South Africa, who were not imprisoned or exiled. When the ANC was legalized in 1990, Ramaphosa was frequently seen with its leader, Nelson Mandela, and many assumed he would be given an important post in the organization. But Scott Kraft explained in the Los Angeles Times, “Ramaphosa and other internal antiapartheid activists were largely excluded from the ANC hierarchy by former exiles and prisoners…. One reason for the ill feeling between internal activists and exiles was the role Ramaphosa and others played in publicly ostracizing Mandela’s wife, Winnie, from the antiapartheid movement…. Ramaphosa was also among those especially critical of what they considered the undemocratic decision-making process in the ANC.”
Ramaphosa continued his union activities, though he had joined the ANC and participated in his local chapter. In July of 1991, when the ANC held its first legal conference in more than 30 years, Ramaphosa attended as a representative of the union, not as an ANC delegate. The purpose of the conference was to elect new leaders, giving them a mandate to negotiate a new constitution with the white-run government of South African President F. W. de Klerk. Ramaphosa was elected to the post of secretary-general by a large margin, unseating Albert Nzo, who had held the job for 22 years.
His election was seen as a sign of the transition to a new generation of leadership and a recognition of the ANC’s need for capable negotiators and administrators as the movement changed from an underground resistance organization to a political party. Christopher Wren of the New York Times observed, “Mr. Ramaphosa, who is several decades younger than his new colleagues, is seen as more capable of resolving the disorganization plaguing the congress.” Washington Post correspondent David B. Ottway suggested that Ramaphosa “is viewed as a bridge between the ANC’s formerly exiled Old Guard and young township activists inside South Africa…. Ramaphosa probably has had more firsthand experience in negotiations than any other ANC leader.”
By 1991 Ramaphosa was being mentioned as a likely future president of South Africa. He headed the ANC delegation that began constitutional talks with the government in November of that year, fulfilling the dream that had sustained him in prison years before. “This is a great day for our country,” he said, as quoted by Rick Lyman in the Detroit Free Press. “It is also a great victory, for now we stand on the verge of a democratic South Africa.” Soon thereafter, in the spring of 1992, apartheid officially ended and South Africa became a majority ruled nation.
Organising on the Mine, South African Institute of Race Relations, 1985.
South Africa: No Turning Back, edited by Shaun Johnson, MacMillan, 1988.
Christian Science Monitor, December 7, 1989.
Detroit Free Press, October 1, 1991; November 30, 1991; December 1, 1991.
Los Angeles Times, July 6, 1991.
New York Times, September 2, 1985; July 6, 1991.
Time, September 14, 1987.
U.S. News & World Report, September 7, 1987.
Washington Post, July 6, 1991.
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