Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. Photo: Reuters.

Cape Town - Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, the frontrunner to become South Africa’s next leader, has been criticised for his testimony before a panel probing the worst mine violence since the end of apartheid.

Ramaphosa, 61, was branded a murderer and sell-out by protesters when he gave evidence this week on his role at Lonmin prior to the police killing 34 workers near the company’s Marikana mine on August 16, 2012.

He told the inquest he lobbied government ministers to clamp down on criminality at the mine in the week before the police shooting, an intervention lawyers for the victims’ families said may have spurred the violent crackdown.

“I don’t think he comes out of the commission looking good,” Aubrey Matshiqi, a political analyst at the Helen Suzman Foundation, said by phone from Johannesburg on August 13.

“His testimony may lead people to think he was treated no better than an errand boy in how the Lonmin executives used him for his political connections.”

Ramaphosa was touted as the leader needed to heal a ruling party that was riven by graft and infighting when he returned to politics and was elected deputy president of the African National Congress in 2012.

His defense of Lonmin’s interests has raised doubts over whether he has lost touch with the party’s grassroots supporters, given his status as the nation’s second-richest black businessman.


‘Collective Responsibility’


Ramaphosa said, as a non-executive director in Lonmin, he played a limited role in its operations and the company’s management and workers, unions and the government all had to bear collective responsibility for the Marikana tragedy.

He conceded he didn’t pay adequate attention to the living conditions of workers or the wage negotiations that sparked the protests.

“I deeply regret the deaths of all those people who died at Marikana,” Ramaphosa told the commission, headed by retired Supreme Court Judge Ian Farlam.

“I did not foresee the fateful events that unfolded.”

Nandipha Gunuza, who lost the father of her two young sons, Bonginkozi Yone, during the police shooting, said she doubted Ramaphosa’s sincerity.

“I was deeply saddened by Ramaphosa’s testimony because he depicted our husbands as criminals,” Gunuza, 31, said by phone from Pretoria yesterday.

“There’s nothing he said about the police breaking the law and killing our husbands. I don’t think the deputy president should be siding with one party. They only want to punish the workers and not the police.”


Hacked to Death


In his testimony, Ramaphosa said his reference to criminality was directed at killings before the police shootings.

Ten people, including police officers who were hacked to death, died during fighting at the mine.

The deputy president said he played no role in how police reacted on the day of the shooting.

Police said they acted in self-defense when the protesters fired upon them and charged, armed with spears and traditional fighting sticks.

Dali Mpofu, a lawyer for the families of some of the slain miners and those who were injured during the police shooting, accused Ramaphosa of trying to break the strike to protect his financial interest and said he should be charged with murder.

“Financial gain was not even an issue,” Ramaphosa said.

“My intervention had to do with people losing their lives.”


‘Buffalo Head’


Ramaphosa was heckled with chants of “ buffalo head” during his testimony, a reference to his failed 19.5 million-rand bid for a buffalo cow and calf at a game auction in 2012.

Some protesters wore t-shirts, bearing the words “McCyril the killer.”

Ramaphosa controls the McDonald’s franchise in South Africa.

While Ramaphosa clearly had tried to reduce the violence at Marikana, the hostility he encountered at the hearing is “indicative of the problem he faces being a wealthy businessman who can be portrayed as having turned his back on ordinary people,” Anthony Butler, a politics professor at the University of Cape Town, said by phone.

“That clearly is a challenge for him that he will have to manage.”

Ramaphosa built up his wealth after leaving active politics in 1996, accumulating stakes in companies such as Lonmin and Standard Bank, Africa’s largest lender.

He formed South Africa’s largest labor union in the 1980s and led talks for the ANC to end apartheid and spearheaded the drafting of a new constitution.


Presidential Contenders


Ramaphosa founded the National Union of Mineworkers, the union that was ousted at Lonmin by the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union as the main labor representative prior to shootings by police.

President Jacob Zuma is due to step down as ANC leader at the party’s next national conference in 2017.

Besides Ramaphosa, contenders for the top job include party treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the president’s ex-wife and chairwoman of the African Union Commission.

The ANC’s leader will be its presidential candidate in national elections in 2019.

Most members of the ANC’s electoral caucus didn’t side with the Marikana protesters, and the violence there will have a limited effect on the leadership race, said William Gumede, chairman of Democracy Works, a Johannesburg-based nonprofit group.

“Even if Ramaphosa has people protesting against him, they don’t make a difference in the internal dynamics of the ANC,” Gumede said by phone.

Still, “if Zuma doesn’t want Ramaphosa to succeed him, he could use the Marikana issue, saying he doesn’t have support.”


Preferred Successor


Zuma hasn’t named a preferred successor.

Matshiqi expects Ramaphosa’s testimony to count against him in the country’s 2017 leadership contest.

“He left behind the sensitivity that a president of the ANC and this country must have,” Matshiqi said.

His actions as a Lonmin board member “suggests some detachment from his past or even worse that he may have been giving lip-service to the needs of those miners.” - Bloomberg News