You can see in Cyril Ramaphosa's quiet, forceful demeanor both the past and the future of his country. As a fearless union leader, Ramaphosa built the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) into a formidable force inside apartheid South Africa, growing the NUM from 6,000 to more than 300,000. Taking the NUM out on strike in 1987 was his masterstroke; suddenly the white-supremacy regime came face to face with its worst nightmare.
When Nelson Mandela walked out of prison in 1990, Ramaphosa was at the gates. Ramaphosa told me once how Mandela made his final decision on the national flag. After a nationwide contest, a winner was selected, but Mandela was hundreds of miles away. "Fax it to me," he told Ramaphosa, who protested that the fax would not show the colors, which had been carefully chosen to reflect South Africa's complex racial composition. "Well, just describe it to me," Mandela said. "I trust you." And thus, the unique flag of Africa's most dynamic nation.
Ramaphosa's decision to leave politics was characteristic: decisive, bold and imaginative. He saw an opportunity to show the way to a generation of black South Africans who would gradually control the South African economy. He reached out to white business leaders, but he made black economic empowerment his new issue, tirelessly promoting it and warning that it had to happen. His businesses now include Shanduka Group, an investment firm, and mining and energy interests. There are many who hope that Ramaphosa, just 54, will emerge as South Africa's next President. But even as he continues a life that includes active involvementalong with his wife Tshepo, a doctorin the fight against AIDS, he says he is not interested in returning to politics. That would be a loss not only for his country but for the rest of us. Speaking personallyCyril is a close friendI believe that, whatever he does, he will remain a beacon of hope for Africansand the rest of us.
Holbrooke is a vice chairman of Perseus, a private-equity fund, and is a former United States ambassador to the United Nations
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