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Ramaphosa: building the base

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Cyril Ramaphosa’s destiny

By Crystal Orderson, in Cape Town and Johannesburg
Posted on Monday, 25 March 2019 12:03

Cyril Ramaphosa facing mine-owner Harry Oppenheimer at Weekly Mail debate. Gille de Vlieg/South Photos/Africa Media Online

Ramaphosa goes to work organising South Africa's mineworkers and changes allegiance from the BPC to the ANC.

When she first met Ramaphosa in the 1970s it was clear to Patricia de Lille – the firebrand secretary general of the South African Chemical Workers’ Union – that he had the toughness to resist repression and to build a political movement in the unions. After release from detention, Ramaphosa joined the Black People’s Convention (BPC), an organisation in the Black Consciousness Movement under Steve Biko, and resumed legal studies. He was arrested in 1976 and detained for six months in the notorious John Vorster Square police headquarters after the 16 June uprising in Soweto against apartheid education policies.

De Lille first met Ramaphosa at the Council of Unions of South Africa, where he was working as a legal adviser. Recognising his political skills, in 1982 the union chiefs sent him to organise mineworkers, who were producing more than a fifth of the country’s wealth.

That brought Ramaphosa up against the harshest realities of the apartheid regime as he criss-crossed the country, seeing the dangerous working conditions in the mines and the squalor of the single-sex hostels. “Ramaphosa and other organisers were frequently chased away by the police, as most companies had not granted them organising rights,” recalls De Lille.

Move to the ANC

Mineworkers were reluctant to hand over their hard-earned money as subs to the mining unions. The unions were also divided politically. By the time the National Union of Mineworkers was founded, in 1982, Ramaphosa had switched allegiance from the BPC to the ANC, with its stronger organisation and international backing. Harry Oppenheimer, chairman of Anglo American, allowed unions to organise, and Ramaphosa saw this as an opportunity to build a socialist mass movement.

He was very shrewd. He will smile with you, but would be planning something else” – Patricia de Lille

Although some activists were disappointed with Ramaphosa’s move to the ANC, De Lille saw clear reasons for it: “He was very shrewd. He will smile with you, but he would be planning something else. He was strategic and tactical.”

Internal differences within the PAC and BPC also pushed Ramaphosa towards the ANC. The next step was to organise a national union federation with the widest possible membership. Along with Jay Naidoo, Ramaphosa launched the Confederation of South African Trade Unions in November 1985, grouping together 33 unions.

“It is important to draw people into restructuring society so that the wealth is democratically controlled and shared by its people,” Ramaphosa told the workers. Naidoo was the first secretary general of the federation, with Ramaphosa leading on its political strategy. It was aligned at home with the United Democratic Front, formed two years earlier, and to the ANC at its base in Zambia. By now, top ANC cadres in Lusaka were talking about comrade Ramaphosa, a rising star.

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Also in this in Depth:

Ramaphosa: born into South Africa’s struggle

Ramaphosa's early years as a young militant shaped him into the leader he is today.

Ramaphosa: from national resistance to political power

Catapulted into the position of secretary general of the ANC, Ramaphosa is at Mandela's side negotiating freedom for South Africa.

Ramaphosa: Comrade Cyril, the multimillionaire

From 1996 Ramaphosa threw himself into the corporate arena. His nadir arrived in 2012 with the Marikana massacre.

Ramaphosa: destiny delivered, compromises made

In the final part of this series on the life of Cyril Ramaphosa he re-enters politics and achieves his ambition to lead South Africa.