But on Monday, more than two decades later, Cyril Ramaphosa, completed an amazing comeback when 2240 delegates out of 4776 voted for him to become the new president of the ANC.
It was the culmination of a long journey, in which the triumph of high achievement was sometimes mixed with bitter disappointment and self-inflicted pain.
When the result was announced, Ramaphosa tried, but failed, to hold back the tears - for he would have been only too aware that he had triumphed over a formidable opponent, backed by a formidable, ruthless team of electioneers.
Make no mistake, his was a monumental achievement.
Over the next few days, when South Africans catch their breath after the excitement of the past few days, they may well be filled with a sense of foreboding when they consider the scale of the task facing the new president,
But they will know too that if anyone can steady the good ship ANC, it is Ramaphosa.
He has the credentials.
Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa was born in Soweto, near Johannesburg, on November 17, 1952. After attending primary school and high school (up to Grade 11, or Standard 9), he matriculated at a high school in Sibasa, in Limpopo.
University politics - in 1972 he had registered at Turfloop University for a BProc degree - proved compelling for the young Ramaphosa.
Politically, he leaned towards black consciousness - and the first organisation he joined was the South African Students Organisation (Saso), of which he became chairperson of the branch at the university in 1974.
It was inevitable that the activities of the branch, and its chairperson, would attract the attention of the apartheid security apparatus
In 1974, after a pro-Frelimo rally at the university, Ramaphosa was detained for 11 months under Section 6 of the Terrorism Act.
On his release, he joined the Black People’s Convention. In June 1976, he was again detained under Section 6 of the Terrorism Act, and this time he was held for six months.
After completing his BProc degree by correspondence from the University of South Africa, and after completing his articles, he joined the Council of Unions of South Africa (Cusa) as an adviser in its legal department.
By then, word of his enormous talents had spread, and when Cusa launched the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in December 1982, Ramaphosa became its first secretary.
He also played a key role in the formation of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), delivering the keynote address at the new body’s launch rally in December 1985.
Ramaphosa’s first official contact with the ANC occurred in March 1986, when he was part of a Cosatu delegation that met the organisation in March 1986.
As his rise continued, he became an important member of the conduit between the still-exiled ANC and internal opponents of the apartheid regime.
It was not surprising therefore that as the unthinkable - the release of Nelson Mandela - began to unfold, Ramaphosa became a key figure in the talks before talks between those acting on behalf of the ANC and the apartheid government.
He was one of the first people to meet Mandela when the ANC icon was moved from Pollsmoor Prison in the suburbs of Cape Town to a house in Victor Verster Prison, near Paarl. Soon after he became chair of the National Reception Committee that prepared for Mandela's release in 1990.
Mandela took to him immediately.
In many ways, there were significant similarities between the two men. Both had razor-sharp intellects, which gave the impression of being laid back. Both favoured democratic ways within the ANC to reach consensus. And both were eminently approachable.
There was one big difference though
Ramaphosa was a skilled negotiator - probably one of the best in South Africa. This skill, and the other similarities he enjoyed with Mandela, brought the two closer and closer together.
This did not pass unnoticed by other, powerful figures in the “exiles” section of the ANC.
Slowly, surely, Ramaphosa was pushed aside as a new man emerged at Mandela’s side: Thabo Mbeki.
Despite this, Ramaphosa achieved the seemingly unthinkable in July 1991: he defeated two members of the “exiles” group - Alfred Nzo and Jacob Zuma - to become ANC secretary-general at the organisation’s first elective conference to be held inside the country since its banning, in Durban.
Many members of the ANC were not pleased with Ramaphosa. An unwritten rule of the organisation was that succession matters had to be discussed, and incumbents agreed on, before actual conferences.
Ramaphosa’s ability to read situations, to make up his mind quickly and to act decisively - unlike the staid Nzo and the uneducated Zuma - made him the ideal person to fill the post of secretary-general.
Mandela’s wish to have Ramaphosa as his deputy-president was shot down by the more vocal members of the “exiles” - and Mandela, always the democrat, relented and chose Mbeki instead.
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It was said - and subsequently denied - that the decision to choose Mbeki had angered Ramaphosa. The fact that he did not attend the inauguration of Mandela added fuel to this rumour.
When Mandela asked him to become chairperson of the Constitutional Assembly in 1994, he accepted, stating later that no one could refuse a request from Mandela.
Ramaphosa, having left politics in 1996 after the adoption of the constitution, was firmly entrenched in his new career as a businessman.
With interests in companies such as McDonald’s South Africa and MTN, and as a member of the board of the mining giant, Lonmin, he became one of the richest people in South Africa.
Ramaphosa’s business activities were closely scrutinised. But even though he was never accused of any illegal activities in the business sphere, some of the companies in which he was involved were sharply criticised. Among these were the MTN Irancell, which became involved in a scandal when he was chairperson of MTN. Then there was also the matter of being accused of treason by the Mbeki administration
In 2014, he was persuaded to return to politics, as deputy president to Jacob Zuma. One of the criticisms levelled at him during this period, was that he said nothing or made no attempt to mobilise colleagues to help rein in Jacob Zuma.
It was only at the business end of the race for the presidency that he found the will to speak out strongly against corruption and state capture, hinting broadly at who he thought was responsible for the problems faced by South Africa.
Ramaphosa’s involvement in the Marikana Massacre in 2012, when he called on police for “concomitant action” to be taken against striking miners, and which led to the killing of 34 of these miners, was heavily criticised by a wide range of South Africans.
Although he apologised, many people continue to believe that this was not enough.
But in the hallowed halls of Parliament he proved to be as different from Zuma as cheap wine is to expensive whisky. Relaxed, articulate, charming and humorous, he was regarded as a breath of fresh air in Parliament.
Ramaphosa will face many challenges as the new president of the ANC, the most important being to wipe out corruption within the organisation.
Zuma still has two years to run as president of South Africa.
But with charges of corruption hanging over his head, and with accusations of being complicit in “state capture” being relentlessly levelled at him, the question on the lips of millions of South Africans is: will Ramaphosa do what Zuma did to Mbeki?
Will he be able to create consensus among the leadership of the organisation and recall Zuma?