Black Union Leader on the Rise

Young Cyril Ramaphosa will play key role in landmark anti-apartheid meeting this weekend. SOUTH AFRICA

THE cover of Leadership magazine - a glossy monthly journal read by top decisionmakers here - is not the place one expects to find Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa, the country's most powerful black trade unionist. Perhaps it is the influential magazine's way of recognizing that the 37-year-old head of the 250,000-strong National Union of Mineworkers has taken his place among the country's serious political players. Two years ago, he led the country's longest and most costly mine strike.

But it is a considerably mellower Ramaphosa who greets Leadership's readers from its November cover in a dark suit and tie against the backdrop of the city's skyscrapers.

When black and white leaders eventually meet across a negotiating table, Mr. Ramaphosa, who has been instrumental in steering blacks toward a cautious engagement with white officials, is sure to be a key player. More than any other black leader of his generation, he has shown a grasp of the new political thinking of South Africa's President Frederik De Klerk, who has told black leaders that his door is open and there is no need to batter it down.

``We have put our foot in the door, and we are poised to open the door completely,'' Ramaphosa said in a recent interview with the Monitor. ``The road ahead is about retaining the initiative and control of the process.''

As head of the National Reception Committee, a body formed to welcome and coordinate the re-entry into society of African National Congress (ANC) veteran Walter Sisulu and his colleagues, Ramaphosa has become the public face of the Mass Democratic Movement - a loose coalition of anti-apartheid groups - and the bridge between it and the outlawed ANC.

He will be a key figure at the Conference for a Democratic Future this weekend, the most important anti-apartheid conference in more than three decades.

``De Klerk wants us to lose the initiative so he can call the shots and determine who will sit at the negotiating table,'' said Ramaphosa, a soft-spoken lawyer with an impassive smile. ``But he knows that whatever he does will fall flat on its face unless it has the support of the people.''

Ramaphosa - who describes himself as a pragmatic socialist - speaks with the conviction of someone who has learned the hard way. He was born in Soweto in 1952, the son of a policeman.

As a child, he was deeply impressed by stories of his paternal grandfather who had to walk for three months from the far-flung Venda tribal homeland to the diamond mines of Kimberley, hundreds of miles to the south. After a six-month stint he would then walk for three months to be re-united with his family.

DURING his student days at the University of the North - in northern Transvaal - Ramaphosa was influenced by the ideas of black consciousness leader Stephen Biko, undoubtedly the source of his self-confidence and obvious pride in being black.

He was active in student politics and was detained on two occasions - in 1974 and 1976 for a total of 17 months - in connection with these activities.

On graduating as a lawyer in 1981, Ramaphosa joined the Council of Unions of South Africa (CUSA) - a now-defunct trade union federation aligned with the black consciousness movement - because he regarded trade unionism as a more effective vehicle than law for serving the cause of black liberation.

He later became the first general secretary of the mineworkers' union formed by CUSA in 1982, and steered the union into the ANC-aligned Congress of South African Trade Unions on its formation in 1985.

As head of the biggest trade union in the country, Ramaphosa's is an authoritative voice in the 1-million-strong union federation, the power base of the democratic movement.

In 1987, after only five years as general secretary of the mine-workers union, he led black gold-miners into a strike that powerful white mine bosses predicted would last only a couple of days. But it brought the country's biggest gold mines to a standstill for three weeks, costing the industry some $200 million in lost earnings. In the end, both sides lost: Some 30,000 miners were fired. Many have never been reinstated.

Some of Ramaphosa's critics within the trade union movement - who contend that he risked the future of the union for essentially political rather that ``workerist'' gains - say he over-stretched the union's resources. Ramaphosa insists that every aspect of life in South Africa has been politicized by four decades of apartheid.

He failed to deliver on his claim that the strike had been only a ``dress rehearsal'' for what was to follow in 1988. But his skills at the negotiating table won him the reluctant respect of his adversaries.

``I wonder how he will treat us when he becomes Minister of Mines in the new South Africa?'' quipped one top executive recently.

In the recent interview with Leadership magazine, Ramaphosa made clear that De Klerk had not yet crossed the necessary political threshold because he persisted in defining South Africans in racial terms.

``We would like to create a South African nationhood,'' said Ramaphosa. ``Crossing the threshold simply means a realization on the part of the government that power has to be transferred to the people.''

BUT he gives De Klerk some credit: ``The face we see of De Klerk is very different from that of [his predecessor] P.W. Botha, the finger-wagging man,'' said Ramaphosa. ``But we have not yet seen his political strategy for South Africa.

``The interesting thing is that the government has shifted position - I don't know how many times - on the question of the ANC and negotiations ... to the point where it now accepts the need for a new constitution which will cover all the people of South Africa.''

But Ramaphosa has no illusions that the process of negotiations is going to be easy: ``Negotiations will be protracted,'' he said. ``To us, negotiation is not an end in itself. It is a process which will lead to a strategic objective. So we do not see the massive upsurge of our people stopping when negotiations commence.''

Ramaphosa's stature in the anti-apartheid movement was recognized recently when he was one of the first internal anti-apartheid leaders to meet jailed ANC veteran Nelson Mandela. The other leaders who accompanied him were nearly twice his age.

Ramaphosa's formidable skills as a negotiator and tactician - combined with his leadership - have contributed to his meteoric rise through the hazardous field of anti-apartheid politics.

``I think it was Theodore Roosevelt who advised potential leaders to speak softly but carry a big stick,'' wrote author Wessel Ebersohn in an assessment of the 1987 strike. ``Ramaphosa belongs to this school.''

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