Cyril Ramaphosa’s leadership style didn’t impress voters – but seeking consensus may be what South Africa’s unity government needs

Cyril Ramaphosa, president of the African National Congress and of South Africa.
Chris McGrath/Getty Images

South Africa’s 2024 general election, with its devastating loss of a majority for the ruling African National Congress (ANC), is also damaging for President Cyril Ramaphosa (71). To lead your party to such a huge loss of electoral support is an indictment, and the toughest test of your leadership capabilities.

The ANC’s poor performance – winning only 40% of the vote, down from 57.5% in 2019 – robbed it of the simple majority – 50%+1 – needed to form a government on its own. At the time of writing, the party was trying to put together a government of national unity.

The ANC came to power in 1994 under Nelson Mandela. Ramaphosa became ANC president in December 2017. He replaced Jacob Zuma as the president of the country a day after Zuma was forced to resign in February 2018 amid public outrage and a threatened vote of no confidence over corruption during his term. Ramaphosa, who was his deputy at the time, was then elected president.

Following Zuma’s ruinous reign, from 2009-2018, during which corruption became endemic, tarnishing the ANC, Ramaphosa was touted as the ANC’s saviour, with good credentials. But he found the ANC torn and fractious, and the state hollowed out by Zuma-era grand scale corruption and patronage.

Ramaphosa’s vision as the country’s new president was of a new dawn, urging all to be willing to play a part to rebuild a capable state. But the sheer inertia of incompetent and corrupt Zuma-era appointees has meant that he has so far achieved little of this.

The blame for his lack of effectiveness has been placed at Ramaphosa’s leadership style. He has been repeatedly criticised for prolonged over-consultation, and being too slow to take decisions.

As a political scientist who has followed Ramaphosa’s path in government, I suggest that while he may be criticised for being too cautious, over-consulting, and taking too long to make decisions, these are precisely the qualities of temperament which are important in leading a government of national unity. And no one currently at the top of the ANC could take over from him and do better.



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Ramaphosa the man

Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa was born in 1952 in Soweto, with a policeman as his father. In 1972 he started studying for a law degree, and became involved in student political organisations opposing apartheid, a racist system of suppressing and exploiting the black majority. He was detained without trial for 11 months in 1974 for his political activities.

Ramaphosa founded the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in 1982, and by 1986 had to hide from the Special Branch (apartheid’s political police), who detained tens of thousands of activists during repeated states of emergency.

Under Ramaphosa, the union grew to 300,000 members, becoming the largest trade union in South Africa and the largest mine workers’ union in the world. Ramaphosa’s style of leadership in the union was described as “pastoral” – consulting and caring – by one sociologist, rather than charismatic. He did not push strikes to the brink, but negotiated compromises, even when the mining giant Anglo American Corporation fired 54,000 of its miners in the 1987 strike, the largest ever, lasting for three weeks. The National Union of Mineworkers voted to appoint the then imprisoned Nelson Mandela as its honorary president in 1986.

Ramaphosa’s (political) career

When the African National Congress (ANC) was unbanned in 1990, along with other liberation organisations, in the run-up to negotiations to end apartheid, Ramaphosa was on the National Reception Committee organising welcomes for Mandela and other released political prisoners. He became head of the ANC negotiating team at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa, in 1991. These were the extended negotiations leading from apartheid to democratic, majority rule.

Ramaphosa excelled in these negotiations. His relationship with Roelf Meyer, lead negotiator for the apartheid National Party, was crucial at various sticky moments and logjams during those talks.

Ramaphosa was elected secretary-general of the unbanned ANC in 1991. He was elected as one of its MPs in the country’s first democratic election in 1994.

After losing out to Thabo Mbeki in becoming deputy president to Mandela in 1996, Ramaphosa left politics. During the first version of black economic empowerment policies, when large corporations set up some black political leaders as businessmen, the Anglo American Corporation, then the largest company in South Africa, in effect gave him at least one hundred million rand (about US$5.37 million today) of shares. He founded Shanduka, an investment holding company, and diverse other companies in the business phase of his career.

Ramaphosa had mixed success in business, but retained his new wealth.

Return to politics

He returned to politics when appointed deputy president by Jacob Zuma in 2014. Following sensational media exposés of kleptocracy on his watch, Zuma had to resign. Ramaphosa was elected ANC president in December 2017. At the ANC elective congress, Ramaphosa won by the smallest of margins against Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who was backed by Zuma.

He replaced Zuma as the president of the country in February 2018, and was reelected as president of South Africa after the 2019 general election.

The small decline in the ANC share of the vote between 2014 and 2019, from 62% to 57.5%, could be put down to Zuma’s impact. But it is far harder to argue that the ANC’s slump from 57.5% in 2019 to 40% of the votes in the 2024 election was another delayed consequence of Zuma’s “wasted years” (2009-2018).

Two incidents prompted widespread criticism and polemics against Ramaphosa. As a director of Lonmin mining company, in 2012, after strikers had killed several people, he called cabinet ministers to take “concomitant action”. Little did he anticipate that riot police with rifles would be sent to the scene, resulting in 34 strikers being killed. The massacre at Marikana, North West province, was the worst massacre involving police since South Africa became a democracy in 1994.

In 2020 a robbery at Ramaphosa’s game farm, Phala Phala, revealed that millions of rand in foreign currency had been hidden in sofas. Ramaphosa later claimed the money was proceeds from a sale of buffalo to a wealthy Saudi businessman.

While Ramaphosa was not on the premises at the time, his manager’s actions saw Ramaphosa lampooned by many cartoonists, and subject to a wide barrage of criticism and rhetorical abuse. It did not help that he had not set up a blind trust for this farm and his other business assets. A blind trust is one set up so that it conceals all its business deals from the beneficiary, such as a millionaire going into politics.

South Africa has stringent regulations governing owning foreign exchange. Ramaphosa’s opponents invoked these to demand that he be investigated with an eye to prosecution. Even when the Public Protector found no reason to believe he had broken any laws, this did not deter his opponents from continuing to campaign on this issue as “Farmgate”.

Looking forward

Following the outcome of the 2024 general election, the proportional representation electoral system means that South Africa has now entered an epoch of cooperative governments at the national, provincial and municipal levels.

As this article went to press, the ANC was negotiating a government of national unity to take it over the hurdle of leading as government without a majority.
Ramaphosa and his temperament may be poised to help the country find political stability in a new order of shifting coalitions.

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