Born Nov. 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. He became the leader of the ANC in December, 2017 by narrowly defeating Jacob Zuma’s ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. He quickly spoke out against the corruption that had weakened the ANC, which has been in power since the end of white minority rule in 1994, and sped up the momentum that led to Zuma’s resignation.
He knew well what was needed to bring about a change of leadership as he’s been a key ANC figure for decades, having served on its National Executive Committee for 26 years. “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.”
Ramaphosa has four children with his second wife Tshepo Motsepe, a doctor. He was accused in 2017 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 Zuma, who backed another candidate at the crunch party conference, his ex-wife Dlamini-Zuma.
After earning a law degree, Ramaphosa became the first general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in 1982. Under his leadership the union became South Africa’s largest, growing in membership from 6,000 to 300,000. He led a weeks-long strike in the mining sector in 1987, making the union a potent force in the anti-apartheid struggle.
In 1991, Ramaphosa was appointed the ANC’s secretary general when South Africa’s ban on the party was lifted. When Mandela was released in 1990 after 27 years in prison for opposing apartheid, Ramaphosa was a key part of the task force that led the transition to democracy. Ramaphosa rose to global prominence as the ANC’s lead negotiator, 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.
After South Africa dismantled apartheid, Ramaphosa saw his hopes for the country’s top job seemingly dashed. He failed to clinch the ANC nomination to succeed President Nelson Mandela in 1999. This even as Mandela had wanted him to succeed him. But former President Thambo Mbeki carried the day.
Mandela once described Ramaphosa as one of the most gifted leaders of the “new generation.” True to his pragmatic character, he opted instead for life in business, a move that brought him spectacular wealth.
Out of politics for a decade, Ramaphosa returned to the fray in 2012 when he was elected to the ANC’s deputy president. During his business career, Ramaphosa held stakes in McDonald’s and Coca-Cola’s local ventures 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 No. 42 on the Forbes list of Africa’s wealthiest people in 2015 with a net worth of $450 million (383 million euros).
Astute and articulate, he delivered occasional and cautious criticism of Zuma while serving as deputy president. Reports said his ambivalence led to criticism. Mmusi Maimane, leader of the main opposition Democratic Alliance party, accused Ramaphosa of being “at best a silent deputy president, and at worst a complicit one.”