By David Dolan
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Anti-apartheid hero turned businessman Cyril Ramaphosa offers South Africa talent and experience as deputy leader of the ruling ANC, but his bid for office shows that a new, black elite is struggling to rally the century-old party's impoverished base.
Ramaphosa confirmed on Sunday he will challenge for the No.2 post at this week's party conference. But it remains to be seen whether a man who retreated from public life to make a fortune in investments can fire up enthusiasm among the millions of poor disillusioned by broken promises in 18 years of majority rule.
Once a firebrand campaigner for miners' rights, he hit the headlines this year as a mining company director who urged a crackdown on strikers before police killed 34 of them.
While few who know him well today are willing to discuss Ramaphosa on the record, people who worked with him in his heyday as a labour organizer and politician speak glowingly of his keen intellect and negotiating skills, which could serve his party as it fends off charges of corruption and incompetence.
Insiders at the African National Congress gathering in Bloemfontein said Ramaphosa had solid support and that President Jacob Zuma believes the 60-year-old lawyer would bring new moral authority if he dislodges current deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, who has mounted what most see as a doomed challenge to Zuma.
Though Ramaphosa sits on the ANC's influential National Executive Committee, the man once tipped as a successor to Nelson Mandela has largely avoided public political engagements for years and some who know him wonder if he has lost his touch.
"That's his fundamental problem within the ANC, a lack of street cred," said one person who knows Ramaphosa well and has done business with his investment company, Shanduka Group.
"Is he going to be the guy to stand up in front of the man on the street and say, 'We'll sort it out'? I'm not so sure."
Since a falling out with then president Thabo Mbeki in 2001, Ramaphosa, who declined Reuters requests for an interview, has kept his political views largely to himself. "Nobody knows what Cyril really believes," said a former business associate.
Those who recall the charismatic orator who built the National Union of Mineworkers into a major political force might not recognize the cautious business leader his associates now describe: "He is surprisingly quiet and non-confrontational on boards," said the person who has done business with Shanduka.
Ramaphosa benefited from the post-apartheid policy of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) and is now one of Africa's richest men, with a fortune estimated at $675 million by Forbes magazine. He started Shanduka in 2001 to take advantage of BEE rules that obliged companies to add black shareholders to meet mandatory targets and win government contracts.
But while many South Africans complain the new black capitalist elite has betrayed the anti-apartheid struggle, some point to the continuing expansion of Ramaphosa's business empire as evidence of real entrepreneurial savvy that can help the nation: "That's a billion dollar company that they built from nothing," said the person who has done business with Shanduka.
It bought stakes, often with borrowed money, in some of the country's biggest firms, including Standard Bank, Lonmin, and telecom MTN Group. In what some saw as an even more dynamic move, it took 70 percent in McDonald's South Africa, while Ramaphosa himself acquired the rest. Last year, China's sovereign wealth fund, CIC, took a 25 percent stake in Shanduka.
It was his directorship at Lonmin, whose platinum mine was the site of August's "Marikana massacre" of strikers by police, that brought new scrutiny of Ramaphosa's wide-ranging business interests: emails emerged showing he urged ministers to crack down - on the very day before the shootings.
For a younger generation of miners - unfamiliar with his heroic leadership of a 1987 strike that consecrated him as an anti-apartheid icon - Ramaphosa is a sell-out to the bosses.
"Workers are not really passionate and enthusiastic about Cyril's nomination," said a trade union leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He has business tentacles all over the place and has not really pursued working class interests.
"He has actually exploited us."
In a rare live media appearance, a radio caller told Ramaphosa shortly after the Marikana killings: "Cyril, you have failed South Africa." He replied quietly: "Marikana should not have happened. We are all to blame."
He also had to apologize publicly after local media seized on his bid worth $2 million at a livestock auction for a buffalo cow and calf - at a time when Lonmin was refusing miners' demands for a wage rise to $1,500 a month.
Yet others who have known him well, not least the man who faced him across the table during negotiations to end apartheid, believe Ramaphosa has much to offer: "To say that he's lost touch with the poor, I think it's a complete underestimation of what he's really doing," said Rolf Meyer, the lead negotiator for the white National Party in the talks that ended in 1994.
Meyer praised charitable work by the Shanduka Foundation and also argued Ramaphosa's reputation had not been badly damaged: "It was just a few people who spoke out," he said. "And that was projected by the media as if that is a grand stand that's been taken against Cyril. I don't think that was the case."
The former chief executive of gold mining company AngloGold Ashanti Bobby Godsell, has called Ramaphosa "the most skilled negotiator I have ever met".
And Puseletso Salae, one of the first organizers at Ramaphosa's NUM in the early 1980s, remembers a young, whip-smart lawyer who wore a leather jacket, chain-smoked and had little patience for mistakes. Attentive to detail, Ramaphosa would often hand back documents to his staff with scores of corrections. "He was actually building you," Salae said.
Despite the mark of the Marikana bloodshed, many believe Ramaphosa is destined to play a role in South Africa's future:
"In his worst year," said the former business associate, "He might end up being deputy president."
(Additional reporting by Peroshni Govender; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)