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An African National Congress (ANC) supporter holds the party's flag during a march to the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg May 29, 2012, where a portrait exposing South African President Jacob Zuma's genitals were first displayed. (SIPHIWE SIBEKO/Reuters)
An African National Congress (ANC) supporter holds the party's flag during a march to the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg May 29, 2012, where a portrait exposing South African President Jacob Zuma's genitals were first displayed. (SIPHIWE SIBEKO/Reuters)

South Africa

Businessman Cyril Ramaphosa poised to be next in line for ANC job Add to ...

In the dying days of South Africa’s apartheid regime, a union leader named Cyril Ramaphosa went on a fly-fishing weekend with a top official from the ruling National Party.

When a fly hook impaled Roelf Meyer’s hand, it was Mr. Ramaphosa who carefully extracted the hook, according to author Alec Russell. The two fishing buddies – one black, one white – were the chief negotiators in the highly sensitive talks to end apartheid and their weekend together forged a personal bond that helped South Africa make a peaceful transition to democracy.

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It’s a classic vignette from Mr. Ramaphosa’s career. His urbane charm and negotiating skills have propelled him to success in politics and business, making him one of the country’s richest businessmen – but also triggering the fury of striking mineworkers after police killed 34 protesters at the Marikana platinum mine, where he is a part-owner. Now he is back in politics, and many believe he will run South Africa as the power behind the throne.

In a much-delayed voting process that finally began after midnight on Monday night, Mr. Ramaphosa was expected to be chosen as deputy president of the ruling African National Congress, positioning him as the likely successor to President Jacob Zuma, who was also believed to be heading for a strong victory in the voting.

Official results will be announced on Tuesday, but Mr. Ramaphosa appeared to have a clear majority of the delegates, with the backing of Mr. Zuma’s supporters.

Remarkably, the 60-year-old former mining-union leader was able to ascend to the ANC’s second-highest post this week without bothering to campaign for the job. Even in the emotional fervour of the convention floor, where thousands of delegates sang and danced, Mr. Ramaphosa managed to keep a low profile, answering no questions, giving no speeches and revealing no political opinions.

It was typical of the backroom role that he prefers these days: building his personal power without subjecting himself to scrutiny from the media or rank-and-file ANC members.

Some analysts predict that Mr. Ramaphosa will soon become the “prime minister” of South Africa, the behind-the-scenes manager of the country – a task that Mr. Zuma has seemed dismally incapable of performing, despite his popularity among ANC delegates.

It’s a personal vindication for Mr. Ramaphosa. He was a close ally of anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela in the early 1990s and often seen as his successor, yet was squeezed out by Thabo Mbeki, who became the president when Mr. Mandela stepped down.

Mr. Ramaphosa quit politics and went into business, where he built up a $275-million fortune in mining, banking and companies such as Coca-Cola and McDonald’s. He still enjoys strong support in the ANC, but a growing cloud of controversy has followed him this year. He was widely attacked for flaunting his wealth by bidding $2.4-million for a prize buffalo cow and calf. (He later apologized, admitting that the bid was “excessive” in a “sea of poverty.”)

Perhaps more damagingly, he is a substantial shareholder in the Marikana mine, where police killed 34 protesters in August. Leaked e-mails revealed that he had pressed for police action against the protesters, sparking even more criticism from South Africa’s mineworkers.

Mr. Ramaphosa donated $250,000 to pay for the funerals of the dead protesters and accepted part of the blame for the disaster. The Marikana massacre “should not have happened,” he said. “We are all to blame and there are many stakeholders that should take the blame.”

Mr. Ramaphosa’s vast network of financial and business interests could leave him in many conflicts of interest if he tries to maintain his business empire after he becomes the ANC’s deputy president. He has not said whether he would put his interests into a blind trust or take some other step to reduce the political conflicts.

He holds more than 150 directorships in a range of companies, according to City Press, a weekly South African newspaper. “His network of associates through these corporate entities number in the thousands and include the who’s who of South Africa’s business elite,” City Press reported.

While he is primarily a businessman these days, Mr. Ramaphosa has remained a member of the ANC’s national executive. As chairman of the ANC’s appeals committee this year, he played a key role in expelling one of Mr. Zuma’s biggest enemies, the fiery youth league president Julius Malema, for sowing divisions and bringing the party into disrepute.

Follow on Twitter: @geoffreyyork

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