What does Ramaphosa’s rise to South African president mean for the poor?

Cyril Ramaphosa became president of South Africa on February 15.

The rise of Cyril Ramaphosa, from the ruling African National Congress (ANC), to South African president following a February 15 vote by the National Assembly was largely greeted with sighs of relief and expressions of joy.

Many believe Jacob Zuma’s replacement as president by Ramaphosa will enhance the ANC’s prospects ahead of the 2019 elections. Meanwhile, knowing his ascent marks the end for Zuma’s supremacy, the markets rejoiced and the rand peaked for the first time in years.

However, jubilation over Ramaphosa’s election obscures a murky past and stormy future. It is unclear exactly what changes South Africa’s new president will usher in.

But what is certain is that he will not upturn the enduring apartheid structure of the economy — the system through which Ramaphosa made enormous profits and sanctioned murder with impunity.

Rise and rise

Ramaphosa has an illustrious history. During the dark days of Apartheid, he was the general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the largest and most militant trade union in South Africa.

His was a guiding hand in the nation’s transition from Apartheid to democracy in the early 1990s. And he helped negotiate one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. Ramaphosa was hailed as a radical, a revolutionary, a man of principle.

But as South Africa knows today, when Apartheid fell, its internal economic architecture remained intact and continues to preserve one of the world’s most unequal societies.

The majority remained poor, but Ramaphosa became one of the most successful beneficiaries of this system. Post-Apartheid South Africa’s Black Economic Empowerment schemes, meant to redistribute the immense wealth accumulated by the white elite, went no further than to create a Black equivalent — with Ramaphosa first among them.

The scheme led him into mining, among other investments, which eventually made him a multi-millionaire.

Forgetting Marikana

On August 16, 2012, 34 miners from Lonmin’s platinum mine in Marikana were shot and killed. They were on strike demanding a living wage.

At the time, Ramaphosa was a director and shareholder in Lonmin PLC, a platinum mining company listed on the London Stock Exchange and with deep roots in Apartheid South Africa’s mining industry.

In the wake of the massacre, the Farlam Commission was set up to hear evidence. It learned that Ramaphosa had considered the strike “criminal” and that he warned the Police Commissioner in writing to come down hard on the striking miners.

This request was made just 24 hours before police fired the live ammunition that killed 34 people and injured 78 others.

Ramaphosa’s betrayal was palpable in the hearts and minds of many South Africans. They remembered him as the revolutionary trade unionist who once led the three-week strike of 300,000 workers that brought Apartheid mining giants to their knees and made him a working-class hero.

But it is his capitalist credentials that won him the support of South African and international business elites and paved his way to power.

Despite the evidence, the Farlam Commission let Ramaphosa off the hook — along with everyone else. It remains a mystery to most South Africans how the Commission did not find anyone responsible for the murder of 34 of their fellow citizens.

But among ANC voters at least, Ramaphosa seems to have been absolved.

There has been no compensation, improvements in living standards, counselling or healing for the traumatised community of Marikana. Not by Ramaphosa’s Lonmin or his ANC government. The massacred workers, like their grieving families, seem to be vanishing in his shadow.

Comrade Cyril?

What will Ramaphosa’s victory in the ANC bring for the majority of poor, Black South Africans? If the man sees striking workers as criminals, how will he respond to those still struggling for the right to decent housing, land, public services and education – rights for which the anti-Apartheid struggle was fought?

These are critical issues around which organic, community-led resistance erupts almost weekly. How will Ramaphosa balance the needs of his own elite interests with those of the many who are as poor under democracy today as they were under Apartheid?

Years before the Marikana massacre, Lonmin received a loan from the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation specifically for community development and to replace hostels and shacks with decent housing. They failed to do this.

To hold them accountable for the massacre and these broken promises, the women of Marikana formed Sikhala Sonke, a feminist, grassroots movement whose name means “we cry together”.

Sikhala Sonke lodged a complaint with the Compliance Advisory Ombudsman calling for an investigation into Lonmin’s failure to abide by the loan conditions. The Ombudsman ruled that there were sufficient grounds for an investigation, shaking Lonmin to its core.

But compounded by falling stock prices following the massacre, the investigation left Lonmin with only one way out: to disappear. Executives have thus conspired to sell Lonmin to the gold mining company Sibanye Gold Ltd for a relatively measly $383 million.

A corporation that does not exist cannot be held accountable for its crimes. And like Lonmin itself, Ramaphosa’s part in the murder of 34 people and the devastation of their community starts to fade into myth.

As Lonmin closes its mines, it will also lay off at least 12,000 of its workers over the next three years. Joseph Mthunjwa, president of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) whose members were gunned down in Marikana, pledged to fight this.

“We are going to consult our members and consider all options available to us including mass action backed up by all conceivable legal avenues to defend our members,” he said.

“We want to warn the new owners and current shareholders that we will fight and not sit quietly as our members’ future is destroyed.”

But if Marikana is any measure of the man, what will the price of such resistance be under President Ramaphosa?

[Reprinted from African Arguments.]