Matemela Cyril Ramaphosa

Matemela Cyril Ramaphosa (born 1952) became general secretary of the powerful National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in South Africa beginning in 1982. A prominent figure in extra-parliamentary politics in the 1980s through his work in NUM and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), he was elected secretary general of the African National Congress in 1991.

Cyril Ramaphosa was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, on November 17, 1952, to Erdmuth and Samuel Ramaphosa. His father was a policeman. He grew up in the sprawling black township of Soweto and, in his late teens, moved (like many urban young people) to complete his schooling at a rural boarding school. He finished his high school in Sibasa in the northern Transvaal in 1971 and enrolled in law at the local Bantustan university, the University of the North (Turfloop), the scene in later years of particularly violent clashes between black African students and the South African state. At the university he was heavily involved in student politics, becoming in 1974 chairman of the local branch of two black consciousness organizations, the South African Student's Organisation and the Student Christian Movement. He knew, and like a large number of his peers, was greatly influenced by Steve Biko. In 1974 he served on various committees of the Black People's Convention while serving with a firm of attorneys in Johannesburg.

In the mid 1970s, along with many other student activists, Ramaphosa spent time in detention. On the first occasion, in 1974, he was detained for eleven months in Pretoria Central Prison. In 1976, following the outbreak of the Soweto uprising, he spent six months in the infamous John Vorster Square detention center in Johannesburg. Only his high political profile and position of leadership in the National Union of Mineworkers prevented further periods of harassment and detention in the 1980s.

Ramaphosa completed his law degree by correspondence in 1981 through the University of South Africa and, disillusioned with private legal practice, joined the independent trade union movement as a legal adviser to the black consciousness-oriented Council of Unions of South Africa (CUSA). In mid 1982, in a momentous decision that was to transform labor relations in the wealthy South African mining industry, the Chamber of Mines and the South African Government announced that they would allow black African mineworkers to join unions. Union rights had always been denied to black African mineworkers, who were cruelly exploited, low-paid migrant workers living in single-sex, regimented barracks known as compounds or hostels. Access to the compounds was denied to families, union organizers, and other outsiders. The change of policy prompted a number of unions to try and organize the country's 700,000 black mineworkers. CUSA detailed Ramaphosa to undertake the task, and in mid-1982 the National Union of Mineworkers was born.

As first general secretary of the NUM Ramaphosa embarked on an exhausting round of union organizing, collective bargaining, and public activities that showed few signs of abating even in the 1990s. Under his skillful direction the NUM grew rapidly, learning from its mistakes and concentrating its organizing efforts on those mines where management was most receptive. Within five years the NUM had a membership of over 300,000 workers, making it the fastest growing union in the world and one of South Africa's largest and most powerful unions. The NUM focused its campaigns on wages and working conditions and on the color bar that for years had reserved skilled mining jobs for whites only. The NUM won some significant victories in the courts and at the bargaining table. Mineworkers, denied a voice for many decades, became far more assertive and militant. In "Comrade Cyril" they had an articulate and confident spokesman who, though he had never been a mineworker himself, enjoyed enormous personal credibility and popularity with mineworkers.

In 1987, after the breakdown of wage talks between the NUM and the Chamber of Mines, Ramaphosa and NUM president James Motlatsi led the union out on a three-week work stoppage that turned out to be the longest and costliest strike in the history of the mining industry. The strike was also costly for the NUM. In breaking the strike, the mining companies fired over 40,000 workers. Afterwards, they made life much more difficult for union organizers and officials. The union began the slow and painful task of rebuilding morale and worker support.

Ramaphosa, meanwhile, was increasingly drawn into the national political arena. In 1985 the NUM broke with CUSA and threw its weight behind the giant Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). COSATU espoused a "charterist" approach to national politics and forged links with the exiled political movement, the African National Congress (ANC). In 1986 Ramaphosa was part of a COSATU delegation to meet the ANC leadership in Lusaka, Zambia. In 1987 the NUM membership elected the imprisoned ANC leader, Nelson Mandela, as its honorary life president and endorsed the political platform outlined in the ANC's "Freedom Charter." When Nelson Mandela was released from prison in early 1990 and made his first public speech in 30 years from the steps of City Hall in Cape Town, Ramaphosa was at his side and introduced the veteran politician to the crowd.

Mandela's confidence in Ramaphosa was evident when he chose Ramaphosa as secretary general for the ANC on July 5, 1991. This position was second only to that of President Mandela. During the next few years Ramaphosa played a crucial role in negotiations with the former South African regime to bring about a peaceful end to apartheid and to set the stage for the country's first democratic elections held in April 1994. He was re-elected to the general secretary post that same year and at the insistence of Mandela, also took the job of co-chairing the Constitutional Assembly. His negotiating talents and skill in building and leading effective teams made a significant difference.

When pressured by ANC party politics not to seek the Minister of Fiance post, a position to which he aspired, Ramaphosa announced that he would enter private business in early 1996. Within six months he had been appointed as Deputy Chairman of New Africa Investments Limited (NAIL) and chairman of the National Empowerment Consortium (NEC). The one time activist and union founder quickly adopted to the business world. By November 1996, he was described by a reporter for the Weekly Mail & Guardianas one of South Africa's newest millionaires with "immaculate pin-stripe suit, sober ties and gun-metal grey BMW."

Further Reading on Matemela Cyril Ramaphosa

Interviews with Ramaphosa on labor and political issues have appeared in Leadership S. A. (1989) and in South African Labour Bulletin (1987). Consistent with the antielitism of many union leaders, he declined to be interviewed on personal matters. The history of the gold mining industry is considered in F. Wilson, Labour to the South African Goldmines (1972) and in A. Jeeves, Migrant Labour in South Africa's Mining Economy (1985). The best overview of the Black union movement in South Africa is S. Friedman, Building Tomorrow Today: African Workers in Trade Unions (1987), which contains a chapter on the rise of the NUM. Later studies of the NUM include J. Crush, "Migrancy and Militance: The Case of the National Union of Mineworkers of South Africa," in African Affairs (1989) and J. Leger, "From Fatalism to Mass Action: The South African National Union of Mineworkers' Struggle for Safety and Health," in Labour, Capital and Society (1988). Information on Ramaphosa can also be found in South African newspapers such as the Weekly Mail & Guardian.