Cyril Ramaphosa – 7 Facts South Africans need to know

Cyril Ramaphosa – 7 Facts South Africans need to know

By Mike Burnard – The information in the following article is obtained from three main sources:  The New York Times[1], SA History[2] and Andrew Butler’s biography of Ramaphosa, published by Jacana Media[3]

South Africa is at a crossroads.  After the recent lootings and riots in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, Jay Naidoo from The Daily Maverick described the future of the rainbow nation as a country that has to choose between two paths:  “One leading to a failed state that muddles along the track of self-destruction and warlordism in Congolese style and the other path towards a reassertion of what it means to be South African and what we need to do to heal the wounds of our past and build a nation of inclusive and shared prosperity.  Almost everyone wants the latter and the majority of South Africans refuse to be held hostage to demagogic and anti-democratic forces whose continued plundering of public resources necessitates a dysfunctional state.”

At the center of leading the nation to a path of rebuilding South Africa from the bottom up and supporting the grassroots activism that defended our democracy stands Mr. Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa, president-elect of the Republic of South Africa. 

But Mr.Ramaphosa faces challenges that none of his predecessors had to deal with.  COVID-19 only added to the poverty, the socio-economic challenges of a 63% unemployed youth, corruption, and a deeply fractured ANC.   The fact that Mr.Ramaphosa committed himself to expose and uproot corruption was however met with a fierce resistance unseen before.  In KwaZulu-Natal, Mr Zuma’s old power base, Mr Ramaphosa’s grip is bitterly contested. Here corruption starts at the bottom — with many prepared to kill to keep it that way. “It’s very Latin American, like Mexico or Colombia,” says Sithembile Mbete, a political scientist at the University of Pretoria. “These are livelihoods, life or death — people have built their wealth on state resources. There’s an entire economy trying to protect itself and Ramaphosa is an existential threat to that economy.”

As Christians, our first response is not to pray ABOUT or AGAINST our leaders but to pray FOR our leaders.  The Biblical commission is not an invitation to like them or to agree with them but to pray for those that God ordained for a season of leadership.  The call to prayer is not a quest for personal prosperity and safety but for peaceful communities that will lead to godliness and holiness

  • Romans 13:1 – Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.
  • 1 Timothy 2:1-2 – I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—  for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.
  • 1 Peter 2:17  – Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.

May we therefore be found faithful, informed and thoughtful when praying and talking to others about our politics, and as we ask for God’s wisdom and righteousness to be evident in our nation’s policies and leaders.


On the evening of 18 December 2017, Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa was elected president of the African National Congress (ANC) by a margin of 179 votes over Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the former wife of the then South African president President Jacob Zuma.  

The decision by the ANC electorate meant that Mr Ramaphosa could stand as the party’s candidate at the next general election in 2019 but it took less than two months for embattled ex-leader Jacob Zuma to resign as president and for Mr. Cyril Ramaphosa to be sworn in as president of the Republic of South Africa on Thursday afternoon, 15 February 2018.   Upon winning the general election the following year, Mr. Cyril Ramaphosa was then appointed as the newly elected South African President in May 2019.

But who is Mr.Ramaphosa, the man outside the political arena?

“Cyril,” says Anthony Butler, a professor of public policy at the University of Cape Town who has written a very good biography of Ramaphosa, “is the Forrest Gump of South African political history.” By which Butler means that Ramaphosa has been present in the foreground of virtually every important moment in the modern history of his country.

Scripture has more to say on this matter.  Maybe not about Mr.Ramaphosa as such but about the appointment of leaders in the context of seasons.  “He changes times and seasons; he deposes kings and raises up others. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning” (Daniel 2:21) 

Of this Scripture Matthews Henry writes the following:

Daniel gives God the glory of what He is to the world of mankind. He has a universal influence and agency upon all the children of men, and all their actions and affairs. It is God that changes the times and the seasons, and the face of them. No change comes to pass by chance, but according to the will and counsel of God. Are those that were kings removed and deposed? Do they abdicate? Are they laid aside? It is God that removes kings. It is God that sets up kings; and the making and unmaking of kings is a flower of his crown who is the fountain of all power, King of kings and Lord of lords.

If this is true, then those who follow Christ should take every effort to pray for our leaders and seek to build on the platform that God has established in the hearts of those who are to lead in appointed seasons.  Here are seven building blocks to use as we pray for the man who is leading South Africa in an extremely volatile and uncertain season.

  1. He has a strong Christian background

Deuteronomy 11:18-21  Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.  Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land the LORD swore to give your ancestors, as many as the days that the heavens are above the earth.

Cyril Ramaphosa was born in Johannesburg, Transvaal (now Gauteng) on 17 November 1952. He is the second of the three children of Erdmuth and Samuel Ramaphosa, a retired policeman. He grew up in the South Western Native Township (Soweto), attending a local primary school and Sekano-Ntoane High School, Soweto. In 1971 he matriculated from Mphaphuli High School in Sibasa, Limpopo.

But Ramaphosa, a hard-working student, was very much shaped in his early years by his Christianity. That was something that came across strongly from all the people who knew him. Ramaphosa was described by his friends as perhaps more religious than political, although politics and religion were inextricably related.

It all started from a pretty young age. When he was in his early teens he was already politicised but he was always an impeccable student. Smartly dressed, always striving to be top of his class and not quite succeeding but being always in the top three or four. A perfectionist.

He went to Sekano Ntoane High School, which was a little way from his house and was not ethnically exclusive. According to Cyril’s friends, one of the most wounding elements of his early school experience was ethnic prejudice against people of Venda descent – particularly from Zulu-speaking teachers, but also from children in the school who expressed a good deal of prejudice.  At that stage there was limited opportunity to experience racial prejudice because there was almost no interaction with whites. When that did happen for Ramaphosa, it was largely through church-associated organisations.

When Cyril got to the age of about 16, his parents decided he should attend high school as a boarder in Sibasa, his father’s place of origin (in Venda in the far north of South Africa). That was quite commonplace at the time and one of the motivations was to take him out of a very volatile political environment in Soweto, at a time when black consciousness was emerging as an important phenomenon in the politics of Soweto.

There he began to show unusual characteristics: he arrives and immediately he’s elected head of the Student Christian Movement, a position that is quite important in that school at that time, as a major body organising students to do good works. By convention that position would go to a senior student from the previous year but people excitedly came to the head teacher and said: “We’ve decided to elect this new boy.”

Cyril used that position in a variety of ways. One of them would play a major role in future relationships in the disadvantaged communities.  He was involved in evangelism in the very poor, rural areas around Sibasa. There he learnt to interact with people in poorer areas in a way that he would never have been able to if he’d spent his entire school career in Soweto. He became familiar with the problems that people faced.

In March 2013, then ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, while addressing a congregation at the Pentecostal Holiness Church’s centennial celebrations in Rustenburg, said Christians needed to “become the moral conscience of our country” and that “this country cares for the Lord” and recognised God’s importance and supremacy.

Strangely, he did not mention any other religion or faith-based groups whose belief system might be different from that of Christianity. In a phrase, the clarion call was “Christianity to the rescue.”

2. He has a strong sense of justice

Isaiah 1:17  Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.

As a young student, Cyril Ramaphosa and quite a number of his fellow students went on to different leadership positions in the black consciousness movement but Cyril was always the leader among their group. It was sense of justice combined with his ability to talk to religious groupings that allowed him to retain his relationship with groups of different convictions.

His strong sense of justice also led to him registering at the University of the North (Turfloop) for a BProc degree in 1972. He became involved in students politics and joined the South African Students Organization (SASO) in 1972. In 1974 he served as the chairman of the branch. In the same year, he was chairman of the Student Christian Movement.

After the pro-Frelimo rally at the University in 1974, Ramaphosa was detained for 11 months under section 6 of the Terrorism Act. On his release he joined the Black People’ Convention (BPC), holding posts on various committees. He obtained articles with a Johannesburg firm of attorneys while working for BPC.

In June 1976, following the unrest in Soweto, Ramaphosa was again detained under Terrorism Act for six months and this time held at John Vorster square. On his release he continued with his articles and completed his Bproc degree through correspondence with the University of South Africa (Unisa) in 1981. He completed his articles in the same year, and joined the Council of Unions of South Africa (Cusa) as an advisor in the legal department.

In July 1986, after the declaration of the state of emergency, Ramaphosa went into hiding after security police swoops on the homes and offices of the political activists. He traveled to United Kingdom and appeared with NUM president, James Motlatsi, at a conference of the British national union Mineworkers. Ramaphosa was refused a passport to travel to Britain in September 1987, but when he became the recipient of the Olaf Palme prize, was permitted to travel to Stockholm to receive it.

Ramaphosa was a visiting Professor of Law at Stanford University in the United States of America in October 1991.

3. He has a strong voice of reconciliation

2 Corinthians 5:19  that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.

In January 1990, Ramaphosa accompanied released ANC political prisoners to Lusaka, Zambia. Ramaphosa served as chairman of the National Reception committee, which co-ordinated arrangements for the release of Nelson Mandela and subsequent welcome rallies within South Africa, and also became a member of the international Mandela Reception committee. He was elected General-Secretary of the ANC in a conference held in Durban in July 1991.   In his capacity as a General-Secretary he became the head of the negotiations commissions of the ANC and participated in the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA)

CODESA, regardless of its failures and successes became a beacon of hope for South Africans who desired reconciliation and change.  The first plenary session of CODESA began on December 21 1991, at the World Trade Centre in Johannesburg. Chief Justice Michael Corbett opened the Convention with Petrus Shabort and Ismail Mohamed as presiding judges. About 228 delegates from nineteen political parties attended and pledged their commitment to negotiations by signing the Declaration of Intent.

Mr.Ramaphosa became a familiar face in the CODESA meetings and a prominent figure in reconciliation negotiations.  There is no doubt that his desire to seek peace opposed to a violent solution made him a major role player in the peaceful transition of leadership in a very volatile South Africa

4. He has an accomplished history as a negotiator

James 3:18  Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.

Ramaphosa became the chief ANC’s negotiator in talks for democracy both locally and internationally.  Not only did he negotiate peacefully at CODESA but he was also appointed by Pres Jacob Zuma in 2012 to the position of Special Envoy to South Sudan to act as a mediator in the conflict between different factions in South Sudan.  As of 2017, Ramaphosa continues to act in this capacity.

In September 2017, Ramaphosa also headed the South African bid for the 2023 Rugby World Cup in London.

5. He is an accomplished businessman

1Timothy 6:10  For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

Many South African citizens have the misguided belief that Mr. Ramaphosa only became rich when he entered office as Deputy President in 2014.  Nothing is further from the truth.  Mr.Ramaphosa actually took a drop in salary since he became President of South Africa. 

In 2001, Ramaphosa established Shanduka Group as a black-owned investment holding company, building up a diverse portfolio of listed and unlisted assets.  The group had an influence in banking, energy, insurance, real estate, and even telecoms.  10 years later, in 2011 he paid for a 20-year franchise agreement to run 145 McDonald’s restaurants in South Africa.  However, Cyril Ramaphosa disinvested his control of the giant fast-food franchise to focus on his role as a deputy president.

Ramaphosa is also the Executive Chairman of Millennium Consolidated Investment (MCI) and non-executive Chairman of Johnnic Holdings, MTN Group Limited and SASRIA. He is the past Chairman of the Black Economic Empowerment Commission. His directorships include South African Breweries, First Rand Limited, Macsteel Holdings, Alexander Forbes and Medscheme Limited.

What this means in African politics is that Mr.Ramaphosa is less susceptible to corruption than his forerunners.  The obvious question, asked by skeptics and admirers alike, is how much a Cyril Ramaphosa can do to fix a system that is festering from top to bottom.  “It’s not about Cyril being corrupt,” his friend James Motlatsi says. “You can’t corrupt him. But now people will focus on Cyril, not Zuma. Expectations will be too high again.” And, he adds, “you know, that sea has got a lot of sharks.”

Ramaphosa acknowledged the corruption, describing it as “a cancer” and “a monster,” but said he was confident it could be “reeled in.”

But Ramaphosa is not only a self-enriching businessman.  In 2009 Ramaphosa began a concentrated effort to “incubate” small and medium black businesses by giving them seed money, training and mentors. There are currently 73 new entrepreneurs in the Shanduka program — in construction, financial services and other businesses. “It’s small,” he said, “but it is a very good example of what can be done on a broader scale.”

6. He is a loyal confidant. 

Proverbs 27:10  Do not forsake your friend or a friend of your family, and do not go to your relative’s house when disaster strikes you— better a neighbor nearby than a relative far away.

Loyalty is a scarce commodity in African politics.  When Nelson Mandela came out of prison in 1990, Ramaphosa was constantly at his side as head of the national reception committee.   After Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 and was due to make his first ever public speech in thirty years from City Hall in Cape Town, Cyril Ramaphosa introduced this veteran politician to the people. Ramaphosa was chosen as secretary-general of ANC. This was the second position, next to president Mandela.

One of the major criticism against Mr.Ramaphosa in his term as Deputy President was that he was not outspoken enough against Mr.Zuma.  It was admirable though that even though he was aggressively outspoken against corruption, he seldom addressed his leader by name.

Returning to the lost convictions of Nelson Mandela and reminding South Africans of all races and cultures that we share a common heritage could be well preserved by a man who still believes in the principles of Nelson Mandela

7. He has strong links to agriculture. 

One of the greatest concerns of most white South Africans is the systematic attacks on farmers and land-claims that could cripple the farming community and lead South Africa into a second Zimbabwe.  Mr.Ramaphosa, contrary to his predecessors, places a high value on sustainable agriculture. 

To prove this point, Mr.Ramaphosa just published a book on his cattle. He has Ankole (originating in Uganda), Boran (from Kenya) and a variety of Nguni cattle on his very large farm and reportedly pulls pictures of his cows out of his wallet and shows them to people. He has named all of his cows so one option for him is to devote more time to what seems to be a real passion.


It might do South Africans well to remember how the Lord has already saved this nation from a certain revolution, a looming civil war, hatred, fear, and many other internal and external threats.  The future is in the hands of Him who appoints leaders for seasons, and season for His glory.  Those who follow need to trust, believe and pray

Maybe the words by Bill Keller of the New York Times provides the final thought: 

This may all be magical thinking, but South Africa’s young democracy has a resilience, a limber quality that has taken it this far. Everything about South Africa is negotiated, including the terms of coexistence across lines of language, race, ideology and class. Maybe the country is ready for a negotiator in chief, a man who brings, among other things, an instinct for the sufficient consensus.





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