As the liberator of South Africa from almost 50 years of enforced racial segregation, the African National Congress (ANC) is held in an almost divine esteem among many voters in the country.
But the party’s reputation has been hit by its worst election result since 1994 and multiple scandals involving its current leader, President Jacob Zuma, have left many ANC insiders questioning his viability to lead and looking to other candidates.
One of the leading candidates, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, received a huge boon to his presidential ambitions on Thursday when South Africa’s largest trade union group threw its backing behind him to become the next ANC leader.
COSATU added that it would “work to lobby and influence the ANC structures” ahead of the party’s scheduled leadership conference in December 2017, when Zuma is expected to step down and a successor will be elected. While Ramaphosa has not yet declared his candidacy, he now looks poised to succeed the man he has served as deputy since 2012.
COSATU’s endorsement of Ramaphosa is not entirely unexpected. The deputy president founded the National Union of Mineworkers—one of COSATU’s affiliates—in 1982 and was a key figure in the struggle against apartheid. Ramaphosa was elected as the ANC’s secretary-general in 1991 under Nelson Mandela, who would go on to be elected president in 1994, signalling the end of apartheid.
After Mandela’s victory, Ramaphosa took the lead in drafting South Africa’s prized constitutions. He was thought to have harbored ambitions to assist Mandela as his deputy, but the latter chose the more experienced Thabo Mbeki, who went on to succeed him as president. Ramaphosa opted to take a period out of politics (reportedly on the advice of Mandela’s former physician, Dr Nthato Motlana) and pursued business interests.
The Soweto-born politician went on to become one of the most successful black South African businessmen in the post-apartheid period. Forbes estimated Ramaphosa’s wealth at $450 million in 2015, making him the second-richest black South African behind mining magnate Patrice Motsepe.
The ANC deputy leader has a wide variety of business interests through his investment firm, the Shanduka Group, although he stepped down as the firm’s chairman in May 2015 and has sidelined his business interests since returning to politics in 2012. Nevertheless, under his leadership, Shanduka took a controlling stake in the McDonald’s franchise in South Africa and also had interests in mining, real estate, banking and telecoms. Ramaphosa’s business acumen is well-acknowledged and he sits on various business boards, including Coca-Cola’s international board of advisors.
But his business interests have led him into controversy. The 2012 Marikana clashes—in which South African police killed 34 people after firing on allegedly armed miners striking over pay at the Marikana mine in the country’s northeast—has continued to dog Ramaphosa. The Marikana mine was owned by Lonmin and Ramaphosa sat on the company’s board.