He wasn’t sure if the young lawyer, who grew up in Soweto, was genuine when he wanted to organise the mining sector in 1982. At first, James Motlatsi was wary of Cyril Ramaphosa.

“You have to understand that the mining industry used to employ only unskilled blacks from rural areas. Because of the Group Areas Act mine workers would seldom have any relationship with even blacks in the townships … So mine workers were not only discriminated [against] by whites, they were also discriminated [against] by township people,” Motlatsi explains.

After hearing him out, he decided to help Ramaphosa, “not that I will work with [him]”.

​​He provided access to leaders in the mines and again assisted when Ramaphosa asked him to identify a possible president for the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).

The candidate got cold feet and Motlatsi was elected instead. This time, he thought he would help out for a year, which turned into 17 and a half years at the helm of the union.

Motlatsi, who says Ramaphosa has since become like a brother to him, hints at how Ramaphosa won him over: “Cyril, being the person that he is, is able to quickly realise your strengths, your weaknesses and he will invest in improving your weaknesses … And he will create an environment where you will enjoy to work with him; to fall into his programmes. And he will make sure that he will keep you busy for you to develop yourself in such a manner that you won’t even be aware but he will make a follow-up, which you will realise later, that was a follow-up.” 

‘Ruthless and decisive’ or indecisive?

In a 1996, Mark Gevisser described Ramaphosa’s smile as one “that wraps itself around his face”.

But, says Kuben Pillay, who worked under Ramaphosa in the early days of the NUM, no one should be fooled by that “really affable, friendly character”.

“I’ve seen Cyril ruthless and decisive when he needs to be — in terms of people that he employed [but] mainly in terms of when he took on the bosses in the industry.”

Cheryl Carolus, who was deputy secretary-general of the ANC while Ramaphosa was secretary-general and considers Ramaphosa to be a friend, has seen a similar side of him. “He is not shy to be tough on his team and on anybody that crosses the line in terms of values,” she says. In fact, she thinks he is sometimes “a bit harsh” in judging people.

Mpumelelo Mkhabela, fellow at the Centre for the Study of Governance Innovation (GovInn) at the University of Pretoria, is not convinced.

He points to Ramaphosa’s tardiness in declaring his interest in the top job as an example of his indecisiveness. “Given the current challenges, any presidential hopeful will have to be very decisive and be willing to allow state agencies, including the [National Prosecuting Authority], to do their work without fear or favour. It would require boldness and a [willingness] to be unpopular with your own comrades.

“He seems to be Mr Nice who wants to make everyone happy — hardly the character the country needs at this stage,” he says.

Carolus agrees that Ramaphosa left it almost too late. “Cyril must also stop that nonsense. If he’s ambitious, then he must state his ambition and stop being coy about it … It’s unbecoming for a grown man to try to pretend to be modest. He must just get on with it.”

Anthony Butler, the author of a biography on Ramaphosa, says people who have worked with him in business have complained that he pays attention to tiny details in some instances — by, for example, choosing the clothes that the staff on his farm wears — yet he fails to be sufficiently decisive, “particularly in pursuit of his own interests. He didn’t want to be seen [to be] pursuing his own interests …”

Butler says that while Ramaphosa presents a charming face to the world, he is also “quite capable of being an intimidating person”. “It seems to be impossible to intimidate him, to frighten him, effectively. He seems to be entirely immune to that kind of political pressure,” he adds.

Ramaphosa’s own explanation for his “exterior veneer of charm and unflappability”, writes Gevisser, is that it came from his policeman father.

“Sergeant Ramaphosa brought his children up with a Venda proverb, one he used in his own life, and one his son continues to mutter, as a mantra, in times of adversity: ‘A mature person will step on a thorn looking at it.’ There might be a thorn in Cyril Ramaphosa’s way. He won’t deviate from his path, though, he won’t cry with pain once he tramples on it, and he won’t let you know how much it hurts.”

‘Not such a clear opposite of Zuma’

The Ramaphosa camp has been positioning itself as the antithesis of the captured part of the ANC. The material put out by the campaign through its website and newsletters calls for a return to the values of the ANC of old.