Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

IT IS now more than 16 years since Nelson Mandela told the nation that Cyril Ramaphosa would be leaving Parliament. The would-be president’s political prospects seemed to diminish with every election cycle thereafter.

For this reason, Ramaphosa’s election as deputy president of the African National Congress (ANC) at its national conference in Mangaung has sometimes been greeted as "opportunistic".

Ramaphosa’s address to 500 congregants at the Pentecostal Holiness Church in Rustenburg last weekend is a reminder that we should not take negative prognoses for Ramaphosa’s political future at face value. "We as Christians", he somewhat implausibly began, "need to become the moral conscience of our country."

Ramaphosa even gave a plug for the National Development Plan, encouraging the congregation to read it and to assist in its implementation.

Such a bravura performance, delivered with a straight face, is a reminder that Ramaphosa is a multifaceted campaigner with the flair to cultivate diverse constituencies.

He can talk to business, labour, the churches and the urban youth. Like President Jacob Zuma, but unlike almost all of his peers, he can even campaign successfully in deep rural areas.

There are four reasons to believe that Ramaphosa’s return was the product of his own actions. First, he learnt from his routing by Thabo Mbeki that he needed to embrace ANC conventions in order to succeed. Since 1996, he has consistently denied any leadership ambitions. A one-time outsider in an exile-dominated leadership he has slowly transformed himself into an insider.

Second, his political rebirth did not begin at Mangaung but at Polokwane. When Mbeki’s attempt to secure the life presidency of the ANC was defeated, Ramaphosa immediately secured chairmanship of the national disciplinary committee of appeals.

Third, when Zuma became state president in May 2009, Ramaphosa’s decision not to become a minister was well judged (as the travails of Human Settlements Minister Tokyo Sexwale have demonstrated) and not a sign of marginalisation.

Ramaphosa instead agreed in 2010 to become deputy chairman of the recently established National Planning Commission, which offered him an almost perfect vantage point from which to observe the many interrelated challenges confronting South Africa — and so to prepare for a role in the government. It could also allow for his managed entry into a ministry in the Presidency if circumstances dictate a need for this.

Fourth, Ramaphosa’s actions suggested he took a Zuma second term for granted, or considered the cost of defeating him too great for the ANC to bear. Rather than building uneasy alliances with his Gauteng contemporaries, Sexwale and Mathews Phosa, he supported a second term for Zuma, but also for his own protege, Gwede Mantashe.

Malema’s second show trial was presided over by Ramaphosa. Zuma’s battle for trade union support was won only when the National Union of Mineworkers, the union Ramaphosa created in the early 1980s, rallied behind Zuma.

Business success proved to be an asset rather than the handicap many of Ramaphosa’s enemies predicted. His consistent support for black economic empowerment was politically productive. And his fortune, estimated at $675m by Forbes magazine last year, brought autonomy from money brokers.

Zuma has needed above all to restore confidence among businesspeople and investors. He almost begged Tito Mboweni to return to politics; but to have Ramaphosa on his ticket was the ultimate prize.

Ramaphosa’s planning and tactical awareness ensured he was on provisional Zuma-camp slates in 2011. When nominations formally opened in November last year, a deep reservoir of personal credibility was also revealed. Ramaphosa needed some luck to return from the political grave. But he has, through his own actions, become the last man standing from the generation that falls between Zuma and Mbeki and young challengers from the provinces, such as Zweli Mkhize and Paul Mashatile.

• Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town.