At the African National Congress’ 54th national conference, held in Johannesburg over the weekend, wealthy businessman Cyril Ramaphosa was elected party leader. This is akin to a national party primary election in the United States and all but ensures that Ramaphosa will be elected South Africa's next president when national elections are held in April 2019.

Alex Lichtenstein, a professor at Indiana University and a historian of 20th-century South Africa, said Ramaphosa represents the "reform" wing of the ANC, which seeks to dislodge President Jacob Zuma and his allies, widely reviled across races and classes in South Africa for their alleged corruption, cronyism and incompetence.

“Ramaphosa himself, however, is a complex figure,” Lichtenstein said. “He began his political ascent as a key figure in the labor wing of the anti-apartheid movement, as leader of the powerful (and socialist-oriented) National Union of Mineworkers during the 1980s. In the crucial years of transition to democracy, from 1990 to 1994, Ramaphosa played an instrumental role in brokering a relatively peaceful negotiated settlement, certainly making a major contribution to South African life. In the intervening years, he seems to have distanced himself somewhat from political factionalism, obviously biding his time.”

While certainly less tainted by corruption than Zuma, and recognized by many parties as highly competent, Ramaphosa still brings his own baggage to the South African scene, Lichtenstein said.


“He is clearly one of the richest beneficiaries of efforts at ‘black economic empowerment’ and a powerful friend of big business, and it remains to be seen if Ramaphosa can deliver the goods to the country's poorest citizens, who remain in desperate need,” he said. “And then there is the Marikana massacre. As a shareholder in Lonmin mining company, Ramaphosa played an outsized role in the suppression of the 2012 platinum miners' strike, in which 34 workers were shot down in cold blood by South African police. Five years later, many people on the left and in South Africa's labor movement have not forgotten or forgiven this.”

Lichtenstein is a professor of history and an adjunct professor of American studies. His work centers on the intersection of labor history and the struggle for racial justice in societies shaped by white supremacy, particularly the U.S. South and 20th-century South Africa.