End of the Road

R.W. Johnson

  • Cyril Ramaphosa by Anthony Butler
    Currey, 442 pp, £18.95, February 2008, ISBN 978 1 84701 315 6
  • After the Party: A Personal and Political Journey inside the ANC by Andrew Feinstein
    Jonathan Ball, 287 pp, R 170.00, October 2007, ISBN 978 1 86842 262 3
  • Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred by Mark Gevisser
    Jonathan Ball, 892 pp, R 225.00, November 2007, ISBN 978 1 86842 101 5

South Africa is midway through a political revolution attended by many uncertainties, but it is already clear that the African National Congress, which has ruled the country since 1994, will never again enjoy the moral authority it had in the early Mandela years. Corruption, factionalism and rank incompetence have seen to that, but it’s important not to overlook the lingering force of its former moral and political authority. Not many South Africans have felt brave enough to stand up to the ANC in the years since 1994 and every sort of evasive tactic has been employed to ensure that the hard questions don’t get asked. They aren’t always asked in these three books.

Anthony Butler’s Cyril Ramaphosa is a campaign biography of the man most South Africans wanted to succeed Thabo Mbeki, but not only did he refuse to run, he also refused to co-operate with his biographer. Ramaphosa, an immensely private person, began as a workaholic young lawyer who, after a period of religious and student activism, worked for the National Union of Mineworkers, one of the country’s largest unions, eventually becoming its leader and thus one of the most significant figures in the internal resistance to apartheid. With the unbanning of the ANC, he became its secretary-general and conducted the negotiations that led to the country’s first democratic election and its impressive constitution. Outranked only by Mandela on the ANC’s election list in 1994, he had every reason to expect high office, but Mbeki worked ceaselessly to undermine him, in the end manufacturing a ‘presidential plot’ in which Ramaphosa was, absurdly, accused of conspiring with foreign intelligence services to overthrow him. Ramaphosa left politics and became a businessman. Two months ago, at the ANC executive meeting that finally removed Mbeki from office, he gave a decisive 90-minute speech in which he made it plain that Mbeki had deployed the same Machiavellian tactics against every imaginable peer and rival over the past thirty years. The result was to put the followers of Jacob Zuma in power, initially with Kgalema Motlanthe as president. Ramaphosa remains not quite on the sidelines, an enigmatic and independent figure of considerable stature.

The key moment in his biography was the great NUM strike of 1987. He had previously done his best to avoid strikes but this time, carried away by the rising excitement of the anti-apartheid struggle, he ‘unambiguously committed the union to the wider liberation struggle’, as Butler puts it. ‘Clearly aching for a fight’, he made a series of impossible demands – among them, a 40-55 per cent wage increase. The miners, sharing the excitement, followed his lead. With the mining companies standing firm, he won a strike ballot and soon 340,000 men were out. It was a disaster. Ramaphosa had grievously misjudged the situation and rashly assumed the strike would be quickly won. By the third week fifty thousand workers had been dismissed, and many more dismissals were being planned. The workers and their families had no food and the strike started to collapse. Ramaphosa had to admit defeat. The dispiriting consequence was that the mine-owners decided that they could manage with a much smaller workforce and over the next 13 years mining employment fell from more than half a million to 169,000.

Butler doesn’t ask the main question: why did Ramaphosa do it ? The answer is to be found in the growing hegemony of the exiled ANC and the Communist Party. Originally, the Federation of South African Trade Unions (Fosatu) had held out against the politicisation of the unions, but the workers, like all other black South Africans, were increasingly swept up in the movement of popular resistance to apartheid. In December 1985 both Ramaphosa’s NUM and Fosatu threw in their lot with the new Congress of South African Trade Unions. It was immediately apparent that Cosatu was ANC-aligned and that the SACP was making a determined effort to place Communists in leadership positions in all the unions, which were now to be used as a battering ram in the struggle to ‘make South Africa ungovernable’. The ANC determined that 1987 was to be ‘The Year of Advance to People’s Power’: the NUM fell into step with the slogan ‘The Year Mineworkers Take Control’.

It seems likely, in other words, that Ramaphosa called the 1987 strike because it had been decreed by the ANC and SACP exiles in Lusaka. He was by now very close to a number of leading Communists; indeed was probably a member of the Party. The strike saw enormous union violence against blacklegs: by the time it was over, nine workers were dead, 500 had been injured and 400 arrested. When Ramaphosa decided to end the strike, the exiles – or some of them – were not in agreement: from the safety of distance they favoured a struggle to the death. After the Communist leaders Govan Mbeki (Thabo Mbeki’s father) and Harry Gwala were released from jail, in 1987 and 1988 respectively, Ramaphosa became an intimate of theirs, and when Kgalema Motlanthe too was released he gave him a union sinecure. He even provided Gwala, a self-described Stalinist and one of the most frightening men I’ve ever met, with a car and money. (Gwala, who would quite happily kill not only opponents but anyone on his own side who got in the way, had a paralysed arm but would gesture fiercely with his one good arm, often as a prelude to having someone executed, a mannerism that led to his being called the ‘One-Arm Bandit’.)

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