CYRIL Ramaphosa has come under fire from many directions since the Marikana massacre. Former and current leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) Youth League have condemned him for failing to protect the interests of workers. Such attacks began when Ramaphosa chaired disciplinary proceedings against Julius Malema that resulted in his expulsion from the ANC. Animosity was fuelled by Ramaphosa’s emergence as a potential ANC deputy president on Jacob Zuma’s Mangaung slate, a development that threatened to derail the league’s campaign for Kgalema Motlanthe and Tokyo Sexwale to seize the ANC’s most senior offices.
Advocate Dali Mpofu claimed at the Farlam commission of inquiry into Marikana earlier this week that Ramaphosa has been at the heart of a "toxic collusion" between the state and business.
Sceptics have observed that the e-mail correspondence that Mpofu flourished in support of this claim does not, on the face of it, indicate such collusion. Instead, it suggests Ramaphosa was preoccupied with the anti-union violence and killings that had already occurred at the mine, and that he was willing to use his relationships with union and government leaders to advance a resolution.
Mpofu seemed to discern some sinister meaning in the phrase "concomitant action". (It is possible he confused it with "termination with extreme prejudice", which he may have heard at the movies.) A dictionary consultation suggests that the word "concomitant" simply means something that happens at the same time as some other thing, while being in some way connected with it.
The lawyer’s credibility was already questionable as a result of his involvement in the change faction in the ANC and his work as Malema’s legal representative. His personal hostility to Ramaphosa apparently dates back more than 20 years to the union leader’s participation in the Mandela Crisis Committee that tried to rein in the excesses of Mpofu’s then lover, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
Mpofu’s intervention may have reminded some older ANC activists that Ramaphosa steadfastly faces down bullies such as Malema rather than, like Sexwale and Motlanthe, accommodating them.
Unfortunately for Ramaphosa, potentially far more damaging claims have now been made: that he has become a heartless capitalist. One prominent proponent of this position, Adam Habib, is a deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Johannesburg who has spoken out passionately on social issues in recent years. His moral authority in soft left circles is such that many academics at Wits University support his quiet campaign for their soon-to-be-vacant vice-chancellorship.
Habib reportedly described Ramaphosa earlier this week as a person who "meaningfully contributed" to the end of apartheid but is now trapped in a position of privilege and power. It is true that such a criticism (except for the part about a meaningful contribution) could be directed at many other South African leaders — including Habib himself, whose own salary package is only marginally less generous than President Jacob Zuma’s. But what Habib insightfully observes is that participation in business has turned many celebrated struggle icons into symbols of social division.
If Habib is right, the association of Ramaphosa with economic privilege will make his ascent to the highest office in the ANC all but impossible.
The ANC, however, has a collective leadership. The movement’s presidency might be reserved for a man of the people, such as Zuma or Motlanthe, who enjoys simple pleasures (albeit, in the case of Zuma, simple pleasures that are enormously expensive). There might be a preference for an organic intellectual such as Gwede Mantashe to occupy the secretary-general’s office. But there is also, and perhaps more urgently than ever before, a need in the "top six" for a leader such as Sexwale or Ramaphosa who fully understands the challenges confronting South African business. It is still far from impossible Ramaphosa will emerge in that role at Mangaung.
• Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town.