How Ramaphosa Pulled the Strings and Toppled a President

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Late on the evening of Feb. 4, Cyril Ramaphosa and the five other top leaders of South Africa’s ruling party went to President Jacob Zuma’s Cape Dutch colonial-style residence in the capital, Pretoria. They shared a dinner of chicken, rice, oxtail and salad.

The message was less pleasant: It was time for the 75-year-old leader to go. Zuma, in power since 2009, dug in his heels.

“President Zuma basically said to us: ‘I’m not going anywhere, I’m not convinced by you guys, I’m not going to resign,”’ Paul Mashatile, the African National Congress’ treasurer-general, told mining executives in Cape Town on Feb. 6. “We tried to persuade him, we spent a lot of time. At the end we said that’s fine.”

Ramaphosa, left, shakes hands with Zuma, during the ANC’s national conference in Johannesburg, on Dec. 18.

Photographer: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg

But it wasn’t fine. Zuma’s immersion in a succession of scandals had caused immeasurable damage to the ANC, once revered for the leading role it played in vanquishing apartheid, and had ground Africa’s most industrialized economy to a near-standstill. With elections looming in 2019, the officials, who’d been chosen seven weeks earlier to lead the party, were adamant that he wasn’t going to finish his second term.

Now Zuma is gone, announcing his resignation Wednesday, and Ramaphosa is to replace him as president. The meeting at the presidential residence, it turned out, was a minor skirmish in a war whose victor had been decided in December.

This is the story of Zuma’s downfall, and how his own No. 2 made it happen.

It began on Dec. 16, when more than 4,000 delegates descended on the Nasrec conference center in Soweto near Johannesburg for the ANC’s national conference. Zuma’s term as party leader was up and a new chief had to be chosen. With prosecutors circling to indict him on graft charges related to an arms deal in the 1990s, Zuma needed to ensure he had his successor’s protection. 

Party tradition dictated that the top job should go to Ramaphosa, 65, its deputy leader. He’d won international acclaim when he steered talks that ended apartheid and produced South Africa’s first democratic constitution, and had served as the country’s deputy president since 2014.

Instead, Zuma backed Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, his ex-wife and the mother of four of his more than 20 children. His confident demeanor in the lead-up to the gathering indicated that he thought she had the contest in the bag.

Jacob Zuma, at the ANC’s national conference in Johannesburg, on Dec. 18.

Photographer: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg

What Zuma hadn’t counted on was three court rulings that disqualified about 100 of his allies from voting. Or on a decision by David Mabuza, a key power broker in the eastern Mpumalanga province, to switch allegiances shortly before the election. When Ramaphosa was declared the winner of the ANC presidency on Dec. 18 with 52 percent of the vote, Zuma sat stony-faced, pursed his lips and didn’t applaud.

That was a turning point for South Africa. Ramaphosa became increasingly assertive over the next few weeks. He oversaw the appointment of a new board at the state power utility, which had been at the center of graft allegations implicating Zuma’s allies, wooed investors at the World Economic Forum in Davos and poured cold water on the president’s plans to build new nuclear power plants.

Cyril Ramaphosa in Davos.

Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

“We have taken a view that this is a very, very difficult matter,” Ramaphosa said, when asked in a Jan. 25 interview with Bloomberg Television in Davos whether Zuma would serve out his term. “We are going to manage this transition very carefully. What we don’t want to see is him treated with disrespect.”

Ramaphosa had made clear where true power now lay, according to James Motlatsi, who helped him found the mineworkers’ union in 1982 and is one of his closest confidants.

“He is the kind of character that does not just want to be classified among the top 10 or top five,” Motlatsi said. “Cyril always wants to be number one.”



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