Nelson Mandela, who became a world symbol of the black liberation struggle during his 27 years in prison, was elected unopposed Friday as the new president of the African National Congress.
And, by a surprisingly wide margin, ANC members unseated their incumbent secretary general and elected Cyril Ramaphosa, 38, head of the country’s largest and most powerful black union, the National Union of Mineworkers.
The voting by the 2,000-delegate national ANC conference, the first such legal gathering in South Africa in more than three decades, gave Mandela and the new slate of leaders a strong mandate to speak for the black majority in crucial constitutional negotiations, which could begin later this year.
The election of Ramaphosa to the powerful post of secretary general, occupied for 22 years by 66-year-old Alfred Nzo, reflected strong feelings among ANC members that the organization needs a younger, more deft administrator to pull together its growing bureaucracy and guide it into future negotiations.
It also represented a victory for a generation of activists propelled into the forefront of the anti-apartheid struggle during the 1970s and 1980s. While Mandela and other ANC leaders were in jail or exile, Ramaphosa and his contemporaries were on the streets of South Africa’s townships, waging a bloody rebellion against the white authorities.
Many of those younger leaders have been privately disappointed in the ANC’s old guard of former prisoners and exiles, who had been slow to shed their autocratic, secretive style of leadership since the ANC was legalized in 1990. Ramaphosa and other young leaders inside South Africa had grown accustomed to the more open, democratic style of the black unions and the internal mass democratic movement.
Succeeding the 72-year-old Mandela as deputy president was Walter Sisulu, 79, who defeated Harry Gwala, a 70-year-old Stalinist from Natal province. Sisulu, who served a quarter-century in jail with Mandela, remains the ANC leader’s closest confidant. Thomas Nkobi, 68, the ANC treasurer since 1973, was reelected.
The new position of deputy secretary general went to Jacob Zuma, the 49-year-old intelligence chief of the ANC, former Robben Island prisoner and a key figure in the ANC’s preliminary talks with the government.
“The conference has shown confidence in the leadership,” Sisulu told reporters. “And I am confident that we are now revitalized and able to move forward.”
A lawyer by training, Ramaphosa is considered a tough, pragmatic negotiator and an excellent administrator. As secretary general, he will be responsible for forging the ANC into a powerful political force to lead it into post-apartheid elections for a new South African government.
Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa was born in Johannesburg in 1952, the son of a retired policeman, and grew up in the black township of Soweto.
He became the first general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers in 1982, building its ranks from 6,000 to more than 340,000 members by 1986. (NUM membership has fallen to about 250,000 recently with the closure of mines across the country.)
As leader of the NUM, Ramaphosa pushed for racial equality in the industry and led his union on two strikes for equal pay and pensions. In one of the largest strikes in South African history, more than 300,000 NUM members walked out of 40 gold and coal mines. Nine miners died in clashes during that strike, and hundreds were injured. The union failed to win the pay increases it had sought.
Ramaphosa was one of the disciples of the black consciousness movement, whose leader, Steve Biko, died in police custody in 1976. Ramaphosa was detained by the white authorities for 11 months in 1974 and again in 1976 following student riots in Soweto, which set up 14 years of violent grass-roots opposition to apartheid in South Africa’s townships.
It was during those periods of detention that Ramaphosa began to believe that the ideology of black consciousness had run its course, and, like many black activists of his generation, he soon came to support the multiracial ideology of the ANC.
When Mandela was freed after the legalization of the ANC last year, Ramaphosa played a key role in the reception committee. He was frequently seen at Mandela’s side then, and many considered him likely to be given a senior ANC post.
But Ramaphosa and other internal anti-apartheid activists were largely excluded from the ANC hierarchy by former exiles and prisoners, and the union leader eventually returned to his job at the NUM. He joined the ANC and worked behind the scenes for his local chapter in Soweto. But when he was elected Friday, he was attending the conference as a representative of the union and not as one of the delegates.
One reason for the ill feeling between internal activists and exiles was the role Ramaphosa and others played in publicly ostracizing Mandela’s wife, Winnie, from the anti-apartheid movement. The ostracism followed allegations that Winnie Mandela and her band of bodyguards were responsible for several killings and numerous beatings of young activists in Soweto.
Winnie Mandela was convicted in May of assault after the fact and kidnaping in the case of four men beaten at her home in December, 1988. However, she currently is the ANC’s social welfare director and is considered likely to be elected to the 90-member national executive committee in elections today.
Ramaphosa also was among those especially critical of what they considered the undemocratic decision-making process in the ANC, which rarely consulted the masses when selecting leaders or determining policy. Black unions and the United Democratic Front, a coalition of anti-apartheid organizations aligned with the ANC, had grown accustomed to making national decisions based on voting by grass-roots supporters.
In other action, ANC delegates unanimously elected Oliver Tambo to the new job of national chairman. Tambo has been ANC president during most of the organization’s years in exile. But he suffered a stroke in 1989, and Mandela, after his release in February, 1990, was named deputy president, taking over most of Tambo’s duties.
Outlawed for three decades, the African National Congress resorted to underground activities and guerrilla attacks. With its legalization in 1990 and the release of its leading figure, Nelson Mandela, the ANC assumed a new role--that of the main anti-apartheid group in planned power-sharing talks with the government. It has struggled to pull itself into an effective, organized political group as those talks near. This week’s conference was a turning point, cementing the ANC’s leadership and bringing into its top ranks a new generation of younger activists who had kept the anti-apartheid struggle alive while ANC founders were in prison or exile.