ne man who generated ample controversy, headlines and commentary last week was Cyril Ramaphosa, the Deputy President of South Africa and the Deputy President of its ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC) who visited Sri Lanka at the invitation of the government.
The purpose of Ramaphosa’s visit itself was the subject of much discussion. The government remained tight-lipped about the nature and scope of the visit but Information Minister Keheliya Rambukwella, well known for his flippant remarks, suggested Ramaphosa was here as a ‘tourist’.
That was a response to statements by Minister Wimal Weerawansa who expressed his opposition to what he perceived as Ramaphosa being invited to mediate in Sri Lanka’s ethnic reconciliation process. That would lead to the Jathika Nidahas Peramuna leaving the government, he warned.
The Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and its Minister Champika Ranawaka also expressed opposition to such a role for Ramaphosa. Such opposition was mostly based on the principle of third parties playing a mediatory role in Sri Lanka than being a personal critique of Ramaphosa.
Having made a long and arduous journey almost to the top of South African politics at a time that nation was in turmoil, such distractions and criticisms should not deter Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa who was born in Soweto, Johannesburg, sixty two years ago and was the son of a policeman.
Reportedly, Ramaphosa made it clear to the authorities in Colombo that South Africa would not want to ‘intervene’ in anyway in Sri Lanka’s reconciliation process but would assist in any manner that was thought to be suitable
His involvement in politics began when he was at the University of the North when he joined the South African Students Organisation and the Black People’s Convention. This resulted in him being held in solitary confinement for eleven months in 1974 and then detained again two years later.
It was after his release that he was able to complete his law studies at the University of South Africa in 1981. A year later, Ramaphosa joined the National Council of Trade Unions as a legal advisor and was instrumental in forming a union for mineworkers, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).
Ramaphosa was elected as the first General Secretary of the NUM, a position he held until 1991. Under his leadership, union membership grew from 6,000 in 1982 to 300,000 in 1991, giving it control of nearly half of the total black workforce in the South African mining industry.
In 1990, with apartheid rule on the verge of being dismantled in South Africa, Ramaphosa released ANC political prisoners to Zambia. He also served as chairman of the National Reception Committee which co-ordinated arrangements for the release of Nelson Mandela.
That was his stepping stone to national politics. In 1991, he was appointed to the powerful position of Secretary General of the African National Congress. His skills as a negotiator being evident, he became head of the ANC team negotiating the end of Apartheid with the National Party government.
Following the first fully democratic elections in 1994, Ramaphosa was elected as a Member of Parliament. He was also elected as the chairperson of its Constitutional Assembly and played a central role in the government of national unity headed by President Nelson Mandela.
Ramaphosa was widely tipped to become Nelson Mandela’s deputy but was overlooked for the job which went to Thabo Mbeki, who proceeded to succeed Mandela after he retired. Disappointed, Ramaphosa withdrew from politics and turned his hand at becoming a businessman. Ramaphosa founded the Shanduka Group and tasted success in many commercial ventures, dabbling in energy, real estate, banking, insurance, and telecommunications. Today, he is regarded as one of South Africa’s richest men, with the Forbes magazine estimating his wealth at 675 million dollars.
Ramaphosa continued his rise in the political hierarchy, with President Jacob Zuma appointing him as South Africa’s Deputy President on May 25, 2014. A week later, he was also appointed as Chairman of the National Planning Commission, a powerful state authority.
Ramaphosa is regarded in his home country as an astute diplomat and for his role in ushering in a relatively peaceful transition from the Apartheid era. He is also an academic holding many doctorates from leading universities including the University of Massachusetts in the United States.
When overtures were made to the South African government by Sri Lanka, with specific reference to the workings of its Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), it was Ramaphosa that President Zuma named as a Special Envoy to Sri Lanka. Ramaphosa is also tipped to be a successor to Zuma.
In Sri Lanka, Ramaphosa met key stakeholders in the reconciliation process including President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Tamil National Alliance Leader R. Sampanthan and Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. However, the outcome of his visit is not tangible as yet.
Reportedly, Ramaphosa made it clear to the authorities in Colombo that South Africa would not want to ‘intervene’ in anyway in Sri Lanka’s reconciliation process but would assist in any manner that was thought to be suitable. What this amounts to, and how this offer is received, remains to be seen.
Given the current political sensitivities in Sri Lanka regarding third-party involvement in its affairs, the South African special envoy’s role remains unclear. However, Cyril Ramaphosa will figure in Sri Lankan headlines in the weeks and months ahead, if the reaction to his visit is anything to go by.