The South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa inherits as president is going to require far more boldness and much less chameleonic caution.

In a typically deft move in January, Cyril Ramaphosa — about to be elected our fifth democratic president — turned political poison into a self-deprecating charm.

Having been rubbished by the EFF as “buffalo man” in the Buffalo City of East London, he embraced the title. So, in one easy gesture, he showed the ability to mock himself and also draw the poison that originated when he bid R18-million for a buffalo or two.

It could be said, as an American cynic once described Dwight Eisenhower, that with Ramaphosa, “his smile is his philosophy”.

But after some early encounters with the “Ramaphosa style” during the constitutional negotiations at Kempton Park and later in the Constitutional Assembly in Parliament in 1996, I came to the conclusion that the best parallel I could pluck from the animal kingdom for him was the chameleon.

I remember well the dramatic evening — 17 November 1993 — as we battled to conclude a host of contentious issues before the Constitution could be agreed early the following morning. In that process, the Democratic Party (DP) for which I was then the justice spokesperson, had very few starring moments. Most of the negotiating traffic — and much of it was one way — was between the incoming ANC and the outgoing National Party government.

But the one issue on which the DP had taken a make-or-break stand was the demand for the appointment — by an independent body — of judges for the Constitutional Court. As the DP negotiator, I was sequestered in a side room with the ANC’s Dullah Omar and the NP’s Kobie Coetsee.

Precisely because we had managed to mobilise so much public media and academic outrage against the ANC-NP deal on offer (to allow Cabinet to handpick its own judges), I was winning the argument with my two interlocutors.

At this moment, Cyril popped into the room to inquire about progress. We told him that we were advancing and gave him a broad outline of the emerging deal on the issue. The deal was much closer to the DP proposal as compared to what the NP and ANC had previously agreed upon. He then left the room. Bear in mind this was the year before cellphones were introduced in South Africa. In another part of the building, Cyril tracked down DP leader Zach De Beer.

He advised him that the ANC would support the DP proposal on appointing constitutional judges, provided the DP did not object to another proposal (then causing as much controversy) that South Africans would only get one ballot in the first election and it would count both nationally and provincially. The single ballot would help the ANC in Natal and the Western Cape.

De Beer did not check back with me; nor did Cyril disclose that the ANC was going to amend its position on appointing constitutional court judges anyway. But, literally, with speedy footwork and a touch of duplicity, Ramaphosa got what he wanted.

Of course, four months later, in a desperate bid to get the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) into the elections, Ramaphosa performed a spectacular summersault (along with the NP) and reinstated the double ballot. And the IFP was squared away.

That tale from long ago and far away proved many things about Ramaphosa: he reads a room well, he understands his opponents, he does not always show his cards and, indeed, has been committing a sleight of hand, or two, to get his way.

But the South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa inherits today as president is going to require far more boldness and much less chameleonic caution than was needed over two decades ago. Because the NP that Ramaphosa confronted in negotiations had already essentially thrown in the towel. That Ramaphosa wrought from it more concessions than he probably imagined he could get, could well say more about them than about him.

In the run-up to his own dramatic election as ANC president in December, he did make one essential promise — to root out corruption and to take out the state captures. Even before he has been sworn in, the initial results are most encouraging.

But to deal with all the fruits of the poisoned tree planted by Zuma will require him to take on major elements — not of the apartheid enemy — but of his own beloved movement. He doesn’t even need to go beyond two of the “top six” if he really wants to interdict, fast and furiously, the state capture he promised on the campaign trail.

Dealing with corruption will prove even easier than changing policy to start the economy again. Or to reform the education system. Or to create jobs anew. To do these things will require a confrontation with the most change-resistant elements in his own movement — Cosatu and the SACP.

These, however, are the daunting challenges for tomorrow. Today, South Africans of all political stripes celebrate the fact that the rise of Ramaphosa has meant — at last — the end of Zuma.

  • Leon (@TonyLeonSA), a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London
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