OPINION | James Motlatsi: As Ramaphosa turns 70, I am reminded of his ambition as a young man | News24


President Cyril Ramaphosa

Photo: Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

As President Cyril Ramaphosa celebrates his 70th birthday, former trade unionist James Motlatsi reflects on what he has learnt from Ramaphosa over the years.

Forty years have passed since that day in September 1982 at Western Deep Levels shaft 3, where I met a young fellow from Soweto called Cyril Ramaphosa. Although so much time has passed, I can still clearly remember my scepticism about this young man’s plans to organise mine workers.

I was not the only one. In those early days, it was often difficult to convince workers about the value of joining this new union of mineworkers. Many times, workers would walk away when they found out that the leader of this organisation was from Soweto, which in their minds was a hotbed of crime and politics. 

However, as time went by, and as Ramaphosa became known among mineworkers, these concerns were laid to rest, and workers began to join the union in their thousands. By December of that year, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) was formed, with Ramaphosa as its general secretary and me as its president.

Fast growing 

Over the course of the next four decades, I worked alongside and together with Ramaphosa, first in the trade union movement, then in business, and most recently in promoting educational development. I saw at close quarters how he works, how he thinks and what he values. I know his character well, and I have witnessed his extraordinary contribution at key moments in our country’s history.

From our first meeting, we were bound together by a desire and a determination to improve the lives of mineworkers and their families. It was in large part, thanks to his remarkable organising skills, that the NUM grew into the largest union in the country. But it was more than that; it was also due to his vision of what a trade union should be.

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At one point, the NUM was described as the fastest-growing union in the world due, I believe, to Rampahosa’s conviction that the organising of workers needed to be aligned with the education of workers. He was not content to secure better pay and working conditions for workers but to empower them through training and education. 

Commitment to education

Once workers realised why they were being organised, and when they recognised the value of the union, they became the union’s best organisers and most enthusiastic recruiters. That is why the union grew so fast.

This commitment to education has been a common preoccupation of Ramaphosa’s for as long as I have known him.

When, in 1987, he was awarded the Olof Palme Prize in honour of the slain Swedish Prime Minister, Cyril used the financial award to start a bursary scheme for the children of mineworkers. He understood that the best way to end poverty was to give workers’ children the opportunity to study and learn. 

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In 2002, he started the Adopt-a-School Foundation to mobilise funds for schools in townships and rural areas. Twenty years later, the Foundation has worked in nearly 650 schools and benefited more than 1.5 million learners. Through Black Umbrellas, which provides business incubation for emerging black entrepreneurs, he has continued to focus on development and empowerment.

Apart from their impact, what is most remarkable about these initiatives is that they have all endured and continue to this day to improve the lives of workers and young people.


This has been possible because one of Ramaphosa’s great strengths is to recognise and nurture the abilities of others. Throughout our time together in the union, we acknowledged and respected each other’s abilities. Ramaphosa was the one who headed the negotiations with management, while I was the one who got the mandate from members. We would never impose decisions on members but would travel to regions to get support for a particular position.

Over many years, South Africa has been served well by Ramaphosa’s ability to persuade and bring people together. We saw it at work in the formation of COSATU, in the constitutional negotiations, in the Northern Ireland peace process, in the national minimum wage process and in almost every other responsibility he has been given.

Now, as he turns 70, as he grapples with the manifold challenges facing the country, I am reminded of the ambition of the young man from Soweto to organise workers not only to improve their condition but to change the mining industry forever.

I am reminded of his ability to take on the impossible task, to persevere and to prove the skeptics wrong. I am reminded of his commitment to the country, of his ability to move people to action and of his determination, at all times, to do the right thing.

We are at a time in our country when leaders are more concerned about themselves and their families than about the people. It is at a time like this that we need more leaders like Ramaphosa. 

In all my years, I have never come across anyone who has contributed so much more to the country than he ever did for himself or his family.

– Dr James Motlatsi is the founding president of NUM.

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