Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is within touching distance of South Africa’s top job, previously had his presidential hopes dashed and opted for life in business that brought him spectacular wealth.
After failing to clinch the ANC nomination to succeed president Nelson Mandela in 1999, the veteran trade unionist swapped politics for a lucrative foray into business that made him one of the wealthiest people in Africa.
His failure came as a surprise to many as he was seen as Mandela’s preferred candidate – with Mandela describing Ramaphosa as one of the most gifted leaders of the “new generation”.
Along with President Jacob Zuma’s ex-wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Ramaphosa, 65, is now a top candidate to become the ANC’s new leader when the party’s conference concludes next week. The winner will be well-placed to be the next president.
During his business career, Ramaphosa held stakes in McDonald’s and Coca-Cola and made millions in deals that required investors to partner with non-white shareholders.
He became one of the richest men on the continent – reaching number 42 on Forbes list of Africa’s wealthiest people in 2015 with a net worth of $450 million (R6 billion).
Out of politics for a decade, Ramaphosa returned to frontline politics in 2012 when he was elected to the ANC’s number-two post.
He became deputy president of the nation in 2014 and has since trodden a careful line between serving Zuma and delivering occasional, cautious criticism of his political master.
– ‘A silent deputy’ –
Mmusi Maimane, leader of the main opposition Democratic Alliance party, has accused Ramaphosa of being “at best a silent deputy president, and at worst a complicit one”.
Born on November 17, 1952 in Soweto township west of Johannesburg – a centre of the anti-apartheid struggle – Ramaphosa became involved with student activism while studying law in the 1970s.
He was arrested in 1974 and spent 11 months in solitary confinement.
After studying, he turned to trade unionism – one of the few legal ways of protesting the white-minority regime.
He founded the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in 1982 which grew to 300,000 members and led massive mine strikes in 1987 that shook the foundations of white rule.
When Mandela was released in 1990 after 27 years in prison for opposing apartheid, Ramaphosa was a key part of the taskforce that led the transition to democracy.
Ramaphosa won global prominence as the ANC’s lead negotiator in 1993, with his contribution seen as one factor in the success of the talks and the resulting peaceful democratic handover.
He then led the group that drew up the country’s world-renowned new constitution.
Ramaphosa – who is relaxed and low-key at public appearances – has managed to steer clear of major corruption scandals but his return to politics has not been free from controversy.
His popularity was badly shaken in 2012 when 34 striking mine workers were killed by police at the Marikana platinum mine, operated by London-listed Lonmin, where he was then a non-executive director.
– ‘Powerful insider’ –
Shortly before the massacre – the worst police killing since the end of apartheid – Ramaphosa had called for a crackdown on the strikers who he accused of “dastardly criminal” behaviour.
Ramaphosa has four children with his second wife Tshepo Motsepe, a doctor.
Earlier this year he was accused of having affairs with several young women, which he denied.
Ramaphosa did admit to an extramarital affair but told local media that he had since disclosed the relationship to his wife.
Some saw the sudden revelations as a smear campaign by associates of President Zuma determined to ensure that Dlamini-Zuma takes the ANC top job.
The impact of the scandal was short-lived, and Ramaphosa has based his campaign on his pledge to rebuild the country’s economy, boost growth and create much-needed jobs.
“Our ability to overcome these challenges has been undermined over the last decade by a failure of leadership and misguided priorities,” he said in a rally speech.
“For the first time since the advent of democracy, there is a real chance that the transformation of our country may suffer significant reverses.”
If he wins the leadership of the ANC and then becomes president, his opportunity to try to transform the country will finally have arrived.
“Ramaphosa has no association with any of the corruption scandals that have plagued South Africa,” wrote his biographer Ray Hartley in “The Man Who Would Be King”.
“But the years he spent at Zuma’s side, playing the ‘inside game’ suggest he is more comfortable as a powerful insider than as a radical reformer.”