When Cyril met Harry: two men, two intertwined lives, two very different times

Business Day last week used a photograph from its archives of Cyril Ramaphosa and Harry oppenheimer deep in conversation in 1986. Behind this picture, lies an unexpected story …

The two men are sitting close together, their eyes meeting, both smiling openly, their hands almost touching. You might think that warmth and friendship flows between these two giants of South African history in this picture of their first face-to-face encounter in June, 1986.

You could not be further from the truth. If there ever was evidence that a genuine, un-Photoshopped picture can tell a lie, this is it. The story behind it, though, is a complicated one that tells a great deal about these two men, and their role in how this country has unfolded in the 30 years since then.


On the left is an ageing white man, Harry Oppenheimer, the epitome of mining capital in the apartheid era in which this photograph was taken, and head of a sprawling family dynasty which at its height owned over 60% of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange assets. He is impeccably dressed, as always, balding, hair slicked back, in a suit and tie, a dignified 76-year-old elder statesman of liberal capital.

On his right, in a casual jacket, open-necked shirt and corduroy trousers is a 36-year-old Cyril Ramaphosa, with shaggy beard looking every bit the fiery young revolutionary. He was the general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers and a rising voice in the trade union and resistance movement.

They had come together for the first anniversary celebration of The Weekly Mail newspaper (now the Mail & Guardian). So surprised were we that this penniless, “alternative” newspaper had survived one of the most conflict-ridden years of that period – with an uprising in most of the townships, state of emergencies with serious media restrictions and near-warfare on the factory floors – that a major celebration was in order.

We wanted to do something rare and constructive: show that two very different men in the middle of the toughest political battles of the time could share a platform and show appreciation for the role of the media, even a noisy upstart like The Weekly Mail. This was long before the ANC met a business delegation; it was a time when the business-trade union relationship was deeply hostile.

Oppenheimer had been one of many individuals who had made a modest contribution of R5 000 when we started the newspaper. Our purpose as an “alternative” newspaper was to give the kind of coverage to the likes of Ramaphosa and his union that much of the mainstream media did not, which meant that we had a good working relationship with him. You could say that the paper might not have existed or survived if it was not for these two men and what they represented.

But it was not easy to get the two to agree to speak from the same platform. It was a tough year on the mines, marked by repeated strikes, conflict and death. In January strikes on mines had led to the deaths of at least two policemen and 16 mineworkers; in November/ December as many as 47 were to die in a number of mine clashes. At the time of our meeting, NUM was demanding a 30% increase, the Chamber of Mines was offering 12% and strike ballots were being called. That same week, clashes between NUM and a rival union left 11 dead. It was the year of the Kinross mine disaster, claiming 177 lives and leading to one of the biggest ever stayaways. Workers were also to strike because of the detention of NUM leaders. Could they put all of this aside for the evening?

The two men were on opposite sides of a brutal war for control of the mines, but their lives were interlocked, as were their futures. Oppenheimer had been a pioneer in accepting trade unionism in his compounds and entering negotiations, while Ramaphosa had used this opening to forge a socialist trade union that was making its mark on the country’s biggest private sector employer after only four years. Both anticipated political change, but they were poles apart in how that would be achieved and what kind of society would emerge.

Oppenheimer was a liberal of the distinctly South African kind. He supported a free market and opposed apartheid, was a great philanthropist and supporter of the white parliamentary opposition, but operated a business that benefited fundamentally from cheap migrant labour and lived a life of extraordinary racial and class privilege. He sought change, but opposed the sanctions, boycotts and armed struggle of the liberation movement.

Ramaphosa was a fiercely outspoken activist at the head of a militant union that was confronting the most powerful state and corporate interests. He lived on the edge, risking his freedom and safety every day, to ensure the downfall of everything that Oppenheimer represented and its replacement with a socialist order.

Before this night, they had never met each other.

Ramaphosa was the first to accept our invitation, sensing an opportunity. It took many complicated conversations with Oppenheimer’s executive assistant, Patrick Esnouf, to secure his attendance. For Oppenheimer, the risk was greater, and it would take a bold heart to do it. Fortunately, Esnouf liked the idea and assured us he was working hard to make it happen.

They arrived at the Market Theatre at roughly the same time and I introduced them to each other on the steps leading up to the main theatre. They sat down on plastic seats in front of an unexpectedly large crowd, and Oppenheimer turned to talk to his counterpart. This was when the picture was taken.

We had asked each of them to say a few words about freedom of the media in those difficult times. But the ever-shrewd Ramaphosa had other ideas. His speech was a fierce and rousing denunciation of the mining bosses, the conditions of mineworkers and the political situation, delivered in the Marxist language and with the rhetorical flourishes of the trade union movement.

In the audience was a phallanx of mineworkers and union officials, who cheered, sang anti-capitalist songs and took charge of the floor.

I was in the chair and very worried about how we would contain this confrontation and protect our guests. Oppenheimer looked increasingly uncomfortable. When he got to his feet, he had to deal with aggressive chanting, singing and dancing – until Ramaphosa signalled to his followers to let Oppenheimer speak.

The message was clear: Oppenheimer might have unparalleled corporate, social and economic power, but Ramaphosa commanded a mass following that was ready to demand power. The tide was turning, and a new generation with a different language, dress, attitude and ideology was seizing the stage.

Oppenheimer, a veteran of 10 years of raucous debate in parliament, where he had sat on the opposition benches, responded with applomb. “We have just listened to a long and impassioned speech from Mr Ramaphosa, made more impassioned by the absence of fact,” he said.

He apologised that he had not expected to have to deal with the topics raised, but said strong words about the situation in the country, the states of emergency and media freedom.

Ramaphosa, having made his point, led his men home. Oppenheimer withdrew more quietly. What we had seen were two men who had the graciousness and charm to engage with each other (as shown by the picture); the leadership to confront each other (not shown); and – above all – a smart pragmatism.

At midnight that night the government declared a new national state of emergency. A number of activists evaded arrest because they were still at the party.

Footnote: Oppenheimer’s assistant, Esnouf, was packed off to South America soon afterwards. I was told exile was his reward for talking his boss into taking part in the event, but he says that although he feared losing his job, Oppenheimer “was his usual gracious self and very forgiving”. Since Esnouf rose to be chair of Anglo American in South America, he recovered.
Before he died in 2000, Oppenheimer oversaw the sale of a significant chunk of his industrial empire to a black empowerment consortium, in which Ramaphosa played a leading part.
Ramaphosa, of course, used the charm and pragmatism we saw that night to lead the constitutional negotiations, enter and succeed in business and then return to politics.

*This article first appeared in Business Day

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