Foreign Policy Blogs

The Lion Roars Even When He Purrs

The Lion Roars Even When He PurrsCyril Ramaphosa is the potential game changer in South African politics. The master negotiator for the ANC during the CODESA process that ultimately led to 1994’s elections and the end of apartheid chose the path of business rather than politics after the mid-1990s. Yet there have long been whispers, hints, and yearnings for Ramaphosa to return to public life and to enter the political affray. If he decides to do so, the entire face of the ANC would be likely to change. Jacob Zuma’s status is precarious as it is. Julius Malema of the Youth League is bombastic and has his fans, but he has at least as many detractors, including growing numbers of enemies within the ANC, and scares the hell out of lots of South Africans. And Kgalema Motlanthe, who ably took over for Thabo Mbeki once the star-crossed Mbeki exited the stage has waited patiently but quietly — perhaps too quietly for his own good. If Ramaphosa steps forward there is a good possibility that he almost instantly takes the lead in the divided ANC with coronation only a formality.

That is why Ramaphosa stepping into the recent debate over nationalizing South Africa’s mines is so tantalizing. While Malema has asserted that the mines ought to be nationalized and Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi (another South African with seeming designs on higher status) has moved in the direction of advocating nationalization as well, Ramaphosa recently wrote a piece for the (Johannesburg) Times in which all of the characteristics that makes him so appealing to so many reveal themselves. Indeed, Ramaphosa has, at least as far back as the CODESA negotiations in which he and the National Party’s reform minded Roelf Meyer were able to rise above the sound and fury to broker deals for the good of the country, shown an ability to seem like one of the only grownups in the room (I’ll reveal my own politics here when I say that President Barack Obama is another who shares this trait).

On the question of nationalization, an issue on which the ANC has tried to tapdance but seems generally to oppose,  Ramaphosa has been able to see the virtues of all sides without sounding mealy mouthed. He understands the push for nationalization even if he wants to stanch it, but he also believes that this debate represents a moment that will allow the mining industry to show that it really is committed to transformation. Even when a lion purrs it can seem like a roar, and Ramaphosa is unmistakably a lion. Ramaphosa is beginning to purr. The rest of the veld might want to start making space.





Derek Catsam

Derek Catsam is a Professor of history and Kathlyn Cosper Dunagan Professor in the Humanities at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. He is also Senior Research Associate at Rhodes University. Derek writes about race and politics in the United States and Africa, sports, and terrorism. He is currently working on books on bus boycotts in the United States and South Africa in the 1940s and 1950s and on the 1981 South African Springbok rugby team's tour to the US. He is the author of three books, dozens of scholarly articles and reviews, and has published widely on current affairs in African, American, and European publications. He has lived, worked, and travelled extensively throughout southern Africa. He writes about politics, sports, travel, pop culture, and just about anything else that comes to mind.

Areas of Focus:
Africa; Zimbabwe; South Africa; Apartheid