In honour of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Oliver Tambo, the ANC has declared 2017 as ‘The Year of OR Tambo’. Several structures have launched Tambo Fridays to celebrate his life and contribution.
The Tambo Friday initiative seeks to deepen unity, promote an activist ANC and encourage cadre development.
It is part of the broader effort to rebuild and renew the movement.
We will profile events and leaders who demonstrate the values and qualities of OR Tambo.
The activist, trade unionist and negotiator.
We take a closer look at the life of Cyril Ramaphosa, the ideal candidate to take the movement and the country forward. This week we look at his years of activism, trade unionism and his early political career.
After completing his BProc degree by correspondence through Unisa in 1981, Ramaphosa joined an independent trade union movement, the Council of Unions of South Africa (CUSA), as an advisor in the legal department.
In 1982 when the South African government and Chamber of Mines announced their decision to allow black mineworkers to join unions, CUSA tasked Ramaphosa, then 29 years old, with organising mineworkers. This led to the establishment of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). In December that year he became its first General Secretary. The union mobilised extensively for transformation of labour relations in the mining industry under the apartheid government, with Ramaphosa steering campaigns on wages and working conditions while growing the organisational and financial strength of the union.
Cyril Ramaphosa in Stockholm, Sweden, on a fundraising visit for the NUM, October 1983. Photo: NUM.
NUM’s growth depended on a careful strategic plan developed by Ramaphosa and NUM President James Motlatsi. In December 1982, NUM had 14,000 members in 9 branches. By the end of 1983, it had 120,000 members on 85 mines and by the middle of 1986, it had 344,000 signed up members.
The union won scores of significant victories through bargaining and the courts, testament to Ramaphosa’s legal and leadership skills. Said Ramaphosa: “We learnt to present our case very well, to do research … We paid [them] back once we had the power” (Butler (2007), Cyril Ramaphosa, p. 152). Motlatsi described their roles as follows: “Cyril was the chief negotiator; I was the Field Marshal!” (Butler, ibid., p. 154).
In 1985 the NUM broke away from CUSA and helped establish the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu).
“Cosatu is the home of South African workers because it has demonstrated that it can organise, mobilise, recruit, negotiate and advance the interests of workers most effectively.
“With Cosatu as the spear and the ANC as the shield, we fought alongside our people to liberate this country from the tyranny of apartheid.
“Together, we have written a democratic Constitution, which guarantees equal rights for all people and requires that we progressively strive to redress the injustices of the past.
“Together, we have built strong democratic institutions, provided basic infrastructure and services to millions, and made important progress in providing skills, jobs and opportunities to our people.
“Now, with Cosatu as the spear and the ANC as the shield, we have entered a new era of struggle – a struggle for fundamental economic transformation and rapid, inclusive and sustainable growth.” – Cyril Ramaphosa, address at Cosatu’s 6th Central Committee Meeting, Irene, May 2017.
When Cosatu joined forces with the United Democratic Front against the National Party government of PW Botha, Ramaphosa took a leading role in what became known as the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM). In March 1986 he was part of Cosatu’s delegation which met the ANC in Lusaka, Zambia.
In July 1986, after the declaration of the State of Emergency, Ramaphosa went into hiding after security police swooped on the homes and offices of political activists. He travelled to the United Kingdom and appeared with Motlatsi at a conference of the British National Union of Mineworkers. Ramaphosa was refused a passport to travel to Britain in September 1987, but when he became the recipient of the Olaf Palme prize for “courage and wisdom in the solidarity struggle for human rights and dignity” he was permitted to travel to Stockholm to receive it.
In 1987 he, Motlatsi and NUM Vice President Elijah Barayi led the mineworkers in one of the biggest strikes ever held in South African history. The 3-week strike took place after a wage deadlock with the Chamber of Mines, and saw a halt in production at half of South Africa’s gold mines and at least one-fifth of the coal mines. This cost the industry millions of rand a day.
By the end of the strike Ramaphosa was recognised across the mining industry’s entire subcontinental labour empire for having taken on the might of the apartheid mining industry without the NUM being destroyed. He was still just 34 years old.
After his eventful and intensive involvement in student and trade union politics, and playing a leading role in the MDM that preceded the unbanning of the ANC, Ramaphosa hit the headlines when he introduced Nelson Mandela to thousands of supporters outside Cape Town City Hall upon his release from prison – where Mandela delivered his first public speech in 30 years.
Following the unbanning of the ANC in 1991, he was elected ANC Secretary General at its first national conference in over 30 years. He became head of the ANC’s negotiation team at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) and the subsequent multi-party talks.
Following South Africa’s first democratic elections on 27 April 1994, he became a Member of Parliament and was elected as Chairperson of the Constitutional Assembly. In that position, he was responsible for overseeing the drafting of South Africa’s internationally acclaimed first democratic Constitution.
Cyril Ramaphosa’s commitment and credentials shine brightly throughout his work in the struggle to achieve a better life for all. These qualities are those of a candidate worthy of nomination to leadership of the ANC, and of a candidate who will lead us to a future which we all desire.
Stay tuned for next week’s installment…