In Africa, there is a wide and deep mistrust of politicians even if it seems elections are massively exciting events. It is common to hear Africans call their politicians “thieves” and even worse.
This long-standing animosity owes to a well-documented history of embezzlement and corruption across the continent. Politics is literally a money-making venture for many Africans.
They enter into the fray poor or with modest means but come out of the other side with the ability to afford vacations in Monaco or Hong Kong.
So South Africa’s fourth democratically-elected president, Cyril Ramaphosa, is a bulging oddity.
And it is not because we know he is not amassing wealth through his office – there is no evidence to suggest that. But because unlike the majority of Africa’s politicians, Ramaphosa was a man of bona fide wealth before the big job came.
It is even suspected among many South African political observers that Nelson Mandela wished Ramaphosa would take over from him (Mandela).
If this is true, Mandela’s wishes may have been hinged on the hope of opening up leadership to other ethnic groups other than the Xhosa (Mandela and Thabo Mbeki are Xhosa).
But it would also be insulting to think Mandela’s choice of Ramaphosa was on the sole basis of ethnic diversity.
Ramaphosa’s business ingenuity has been praised. When he became president in 2018, the BBC called him “the symbol of black capitalism in South Africa” following the country’s transition from white-minority rule in 1994.
South Africa’s current president trained as a lawyer. Indeed, it has been said that Ramaphosa had always felt his destination was politics and not business.
Nonetheless, he had the opportunity to work at the intersection of both politics and business in 1982 when the Council of Unions of South Africa asked him to form a union for mineworkers.
Ramaphosa obliged to the request and in August of that year, spearheaded the formation of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). He was also a founding member of the powerful Congress of South African Trade Union (COSATU) in 1985.
One of the enduring memories of his days as a trade unionist was the time Ramaphosa led the biggest strike of South African miners right after the formation of the NUM.
Ramaphosa was also the chief negotiator for the African National Congress (ANC) from 1991 and later becoming the party’s secretary-general. At this point, whatever could be considered wealth-making was limited to personal businesses here and there.
But what his time as a unionist and a scribe for a political party afforded Ramaphosa were lessons in man-management and leadership. Relevant relationships to business ambitions were also made.
In 2001, he started the Shanduka Group, an investment holding company with interests in telecoms, food and beverage, property, financial services, energy, and industrial sectors.
It did not take long before Ramaphosa was dealing with some of the heavy hitters such as Coca Cola and McDonald’s.
In 2011, Ramaphosa’s Shanduka paid McDonald’s for a 20-year agreement to run the company’s 145 restaurants in South Africa. It was a shrewd business move.
Business analysts say McDonald’s had overplayed their hand after going to South Africa in 1995. The company had opened restaurants too large and expensive for locals to buy into the franchise.
Another financially rewarding risk taken by Shanduka was in 2008 when it became one of the early investors in South Africa’s private undersea fibreoptic cable venture, known as SEACOM.
SEACOM was Africa’s first broadband submarine cable system along the continent’s eastern and southern coasts.
On a personal level, Ramaphosa has served as board chairman for continental telecoms giant MTN and the distributions company The Bidvest Group.
He was also a director at Standard Bank, Alexander Forbes as well as on the boards of Mondi and SABMiller, the multinational beer company.
These and other tactical investments over the course of two decades means that Ramaphosa is worth an estimated $450 million, making him one of the world’s independently wealthy presidents.
In 2014 when he became South Africa’s deputy president, Ramaphosa had to vacate all his business interests in order to avoid conflicts of interest.