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December 19, 2012

South Africa Ruling Party Chooses Magnate for Deputy Leader

by Anita Powell

A self-made millionaire who is one of South Africa’s richest men has been elected deputy president of the ruling party.  Supporters of Cyril Ramaphosa say they hope his business acumen will help bring prosperity to the nation - but his critics say he is flawed. 

There are about 170 McDonald's fast-food restaurants in South Africa.  And every one of them is owned by the same man.  That man is likely to become the nation’s second-in-command.

Cyril Ramaphosa was elected deputy president of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) on Tuesday, one slot below President Jacob Zuma.  

The ANC is likely to win the 2014 election, positioning Ramaphosa to become deputy president of the country as well.

Ramaphosa is a former union leader turned businessman, and served as chairman of the assembly that drafted the nation’s progressive constitution.  As a union leader, he led the nation’s largest-ever strike in 1987.

Today, he’s among South Africa’s richest men, with an estimated wealth of $675 million.

He also does not grant many interviews. His assistant did not answer calls seeking an interview on Wednesday.

And so, VOA did the next best thing: we visited the nearest McDonald's to see if we could glean any insight about the man behind South Africa’s Golden Arches - and whether his tenure might bring South Africa's people the golden riches they so desperately want.

The McDonald's in Bloemfontein positively gleams with cleanliness and buzzes with activity. The employees would have been happy to talk about their boss, they said, but they were simply too busy.

In a nation besieged by high unemployment and rampant poverty, it’s a tantalizing glimpse at a capitalist and egalitarian future. But is it real?

Don’t be so sure, says Vukani Mde, a political analyst with Johannesburg-based Africa Pratice.  Ramaphosa, he says, is a union leader turned magnate, and like his fast-food chain, he tries to appeal to everyone without revealing too much about himself.

“There really is no solid sense who he is ideologically, having gone through this path as both a unionist and a capitalist, as it were,” he said.

But, Mde says, Ramaphosa has impeccable ANC credentials: he has served the party for decades and once aspired to be deputy president under Nelson Mandela.  When that didn’t happen, he refused to serve in Mandela’s cabinet.

Many South Africans saw him as the most credible politician of the post-Mandela generation, and were disappointed when Ramaphosa withdrew from politics to become a businessman.

But Ramaphosa also has his critics. He sits on the board of Lonmin, the platinum mining giant where police shot and killed 34 striking miners earlier this year. Some of Ramaphosa’s e-mails to government officials have recently come under scrutiny in an inquiry into the Lonmin killings.

"Now the inference by some people, who are obviously not Cyril’s friends and who are looking to make political capital out of this, is that he is somehow implicated in that massacre of 34 workers because he had called for workers to be violently suppressed," he said. "If you read the e-mails, I don’t think that you can draw that inference at all.  So I think that sort of criticism is overblown and probably politically motivated.”

Ramaphosa also grabbed headlines this year when he unsuccessfully bid more than $2 million to buy a prize buffalo and its calf.  He said the purchase would have been an investment.

One assumes he did not plan to turn either of them into a Big Mac.