Tomorrow South Africans will witness the swearing in of their fifth democratically elected president, Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa. Ramaphosa, who has held the position of President of the Republic of South Africa for just over a year after he took over from former president, Jacob Zuma, already has a long and proud history of public service.

Ramaphosa became involved in politics at a young age, joining the South African Students Organisation (SASO) during his first year of university in 1972. Two years later, while acting as chairman of SASO for the University of the North, Ramaphosa was detained for 11 months under section 6 of the Terrorism Act as a result of his involvement in a pro-Frelimo rally, organised in support and celebration of the Mozambique Liberation Front. Not to be deterred, on his release from prison Ramaphosa joined the Black People’ Convention, an umbrella organisation of the Black Consciousness Movement. Two years later, in June 1976, Ramaphosa was again detained for his political activity, this time held for six months at the infamous John Vorster Square.

It’s difficult to imagine, but somehow in the midst of this chaos, Ramaphosa managed to continue his studies towards his BProc, eventually completing his law degree in 1981 via correspondence through the University of South Africa. He completed his articles in the same year, joining the Council of Unions of South Africa (CUSA) as an advisor in their legal department.

It was through his connection with CUSA that Ramaphosa became involved with the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), which was established by CUSA in 1982. He was elected as NUM’s first General Secretary, a position he held until 1991. Under his leadership union membership grew from 6,000 in 1982 to 300,000 in 1992, and it was with Ramaphosa at the helm that NUM embarked on South Africa’s biggest mining strike.

Cyril Ramaphosa facing mine-owner, Harry Oppenheimer, at a Weekly Mail debate

On the 10th August 1987 an estimated 340 000 people came out on strike, representing more than 70% of all black coal and gold miners. While the union was ultimately unsuccessful in having their demands met, the three-week long strike changed the face of labour relations in South Africa, demonstrating the power that organised black labour could exercise, and the economic damage it could inflict. Also, it was as a result of the 1987 strike that discussions  opened up on the topic of a provident fund that would cater for both white and black workers. Until that point it had only been white mineworkers who had access to retirement benefits but, as a result of the pressure of the industrial action instituted by NUM, the Mineworkers Provident Fund was finally established in 1989, accommodating mineworkers of all races.

As NUM General Secretary Ramaphosa was also instrumental in the establishment of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), delivering the keynote address at COSATU’s launch rally in Durban in December 1985. When COSATU joined forces with the United Democratic Front, Ramaphosa played a prominent role in the Mass Democratic Movement in the fight against the apartheid government. Because of his ongoing involvement with the unions, in July 1986 Ramaphosa went into hiding.

Roelf Meyer (NP) and Cyril Ramaphosa (ANC) during the Codesa talks, 21st November 1993
Cyril Ramaphosa (ANC) and Roelf Meyer (NP) during the CODESA talks, 21st November 1993

Behind closed curtains he continued to fight for the rights of workers, keeping close contact with political allies and in 1991 when the ANC, subsequent to its unbanning, held its first national conference in 32 years, Cyril Ramaphosa was elected as General-Secretary. It was in this role that he became the head of negotiations for the ANC  during the CODESA talks, negotiations that would ultimately decide on the Constitution of our country.

On the 12th May 1996, Ramaphosa confirmed that he was stepping down as Secretary General of the ANC in order to enter the private sector. In 2012, he re-entered the political sphere when he was elected Deputy President of the ANC, and two years later Deputy President of the State.

Tomorrow’s swearing-in ceremony will take place at the Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria as opposed to the usual Union Buildings. Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng will preside over the swearing in of a man on whose shoulders the hopes of a nation rest.

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