The trouble with South Africa’s new political order

As the gap between rich and poor widens, popular dissatisfaction—and with it dissent—is rising

Mike Hutchings/Reuters

Three decades ago, Cyril Ramaphosa, now a businessman and political heavyweight, was one of the most acclaimed anti-apartheid leaders in South Africa. “My biggest regret is that I have never been a miner,” Ramaphosa, then the general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, told author Julie Frederikse in a 1985 interview. “The miners represented to me the utter degradation of man, and I wanted to experience that so I could do something about it.”

He is not so sympathetic now. Following the Marikana massacre in August, when at least 46 striking Lonmin miners were killed by police, Ramaphosa, a director of the firm, was ridiculed for offering $220,000 for funeral expenses to the families of the deceased, and nothing more. Ramaphosa is expected to testify at a public inquiry of the Lonmin events. The next month, Ramaphosa—who is ranked No. 21 on Forbes magazine’s 2012 list of richest Africans, with a net worth of $675 million—confirmed that he had bid $2 million at an auction on a buffalo cow and calf for his game farm, Phala Phala Wildlife.

The bad press continues. A series of Ramaphosa’s emails recently emerged, dated 24 hours before 34 miners were shot; he describe the strikes as “plainly dastardly criminal acts,” and says he had also pressed Lonmin’s case to the minister of mineral resources and the ANC secretary-general.

To some, the career of the unionist-turned-millionaire is an example of what is wrong with South Africa today, where a black elite, a small group of politicians and business people connected to the ruling ANC party, are seen as the only ones reaping the benefits of the new political order. In December, some members of the party’s executive will be replaced at the ANC’s national conference, held every five years; and the party presidency of Jacob Zuma will be put to a vote. The Mangaung conference will determine the leadership team ahead of national elections, scheduled for 2014.

In the past few weeks, Ramaphosa has been nominated deputy president in several regions, notably eThekwini, an ANC stronghold on the eastern coast with a large number of votes. He could assume the post if deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe steps down to challenge Zuma for the ANC presidency, which seems unlikely at this point. Although Motlanthe has the support of disenchanted party members—including its youth wing, and organizations in Gauteng and Limpopo—he has yet to announce a bid. Zuma, with the majority of ruling party support, still holds the upper hand.

The conference comes as the party, which has enjoyed more than 60 per cent of the votes in every election since coming to power in 1994, grapples with scandals that paint it as corrupt, nepotistic and inefficient. In October, South Africa’s ombudsman launched an investigation into upgrades made to Zuma’s Nkandla home, believed to be illegally paid for with taxpayers’ money. The president continues to be dogged by a contentious 1999 multi-million-dollar arms deal that deal resulted in corruption, fraud and bribery charges against a number of ANC officials. Corruption charges against Zuma were dropped, but he’s fighting the release of prosecution documents on the case believed to be highly damaging.

“I think the ANC has realized they have a crisis of governance—there is a lot of criticism about how they are dealing with poverty and unemployment,” says Adriaan Basson, a journalist and author of the book Zuma Exposed. When measuring inequality, South Africa trails even Haiti and Sierra Leone; and more than 25 per cent of South Africa’s labour force is unemployed.

Ramaphosa benefited from affirmative action policies introduced post-apartheid, intended to increase the number of black business owners. Yet almost 10 years later, the program, known as Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE), which gives preference to black-owned businesses when bidding on contracts, has done little to redistribute wealth. “A relatively small number of black people were in the position to take advantage of the B-BBEE,” says Robert Schrire, a political science professor at the University of Cape Town. “Over time, what happened is that a small elite group essentially got all the goodies available.”

As the gap between rich and poor widens, business people connected with the ANC are confronting rising popular dissatisfaction. “The ANC elite has done quite well for itself in the past decade and a half, but the rest of society hasn’t,” says Anthony Butler, the author of a biography of Ramaphosa. “When you have high levels of inequality between wealthy black business people and the poor, that’s something new, and slightly harder to accommodate,” he says.

Ramaphosa’s path was not unlike many of his peers who became powerful through anti-apartheid student organizations and unions. He was born in 1952, four years after the National Party came to power on an apartheid platform, to a policeman and a deeply religious mother. In university he became a Lutheran preacher and, later, student activist. After serving as the general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, he became secretary-general of the ANC in 1991, heading the negotiation team that created an interim constitution and set up the 1994 democratic elections. In 1996, he left politics after a failed bid for deputy president, eventually founding Shanduka Group, an investment company that has holdings in Lonmin, the world’s third-largest platinum producer, and has worked with Glencore, one of the world’s biggest commodity suppliers.

Still, in South Africa Ramaphosa’s success is viewed skeptically. Mzukisi Qobo, a political science lecturer at the University of Pretoria, says that while the B-BBEE has helped motivate companies to diversify their boards, it has “massive” failings. “Companies prefer politically powerful figures,” he says, citing Ramaphosa and Tokyo Sexwale, the human settlements minister and founder of Mvelaphanda Group. “They believe having them on the board protects them from government intrusion,” says Qobo. This won’t change until a new guard is leading the country, he says. Until then, political discontent is likely to continue growing.

There has been a marked rise in the level of local protests since 2004, says Kevin Allan, managing director of Municipal IQ, a data-tracking service—113 this year. “We see a more violent element, a more criminal element, where people attack councillors’ houses and there will be quite violent confrontations with police,” he says.

There is further discontent at the Marikana Commission of Inquiry, the investigation into the shootings at the Lonmin mine, which began in October. On a sunny Tuesday, a vendor outside the Rustenburg Civic Centre, where the commission is being held, is selling water, cigarettes and Simba potato chips. Busloads of people wearing black shirts with red lettering that reads “Remember the slain of Marikana” watched the hearing, the largest of its kind since the end of apartheid.

Kosiuumile Mkump, a 36-year-old truck operator, drove eight hours from the Eastern Cape province to attend the inquiry. Mkump says the leaders who helped liberate the country have turned their backs on South Africa. “Where is he now?” he says of Ramaphosa. “Just imagine, a buffalo for $2 million.”

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