Cyril Ramaphosa was the young lawyer at Nelson Mandela’s side for much of the journey to bring about a peaceful transformation to South Africa.
Ramaphosa led a defining 1987 strike against the apartheid regime and then helped negotiate the democratic transition and draft the new constitution.
He left politics and amassed a fortune in private business, but has just returned to politics as President Jacob Zuma’s new deputy in the African National Congress.
“I accept that we have massive challenges,” he told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Tuesday. “Not everything is absolutely where we want it to be.”
There is immense inequality and unemployment in the Rainbow Nation, where the gap between rich and poor is one of the worst on the planet.
Critics of the current government and President Zuma contend that the ANC is plagued with endemic corruption and carrying out a major assault on the institutions of democracy, including press freedom and the judiciary.
In 2011, Bishop Desmond Tutu even went as far as to say that the ANC is even worse than the apartheid regime was.
“The ANC has bared its own soul, its own breast and has admitted a lot of those things,” Ramaphosa said. “Now that, to me, is indicative of a party that is quite ready to start a process of correcting quite a lot of those perceptions.”
Ramaphosa faces some of those very same perceptions when it comes to his role in the violent incidents at South African mines last year. He sits on the board of a mine where 34 people were killed and some 78 people were injured as they protested working conditions.
Emails he sent at the time have been published and purport to carry messages to the mine board a message calling for actions to be taken against the protestors and even calling them criminals.
Ramaphosa has offered to testify before a commission set up by President Zuma to investigate the incidents, but he told Amanpour the emails were referring to a prior incident and he was expressing concerns about the killing of policeman, security officials and other mine workers.
“Some of them had died in the most brutal way. They had died in what I still see as a criminal way,” Ramaphosa said. “It was so terrible – it just begins to defy any feeling that anyone would have. And I was appealing to the authorities to take action, to make sure that we prevent further death.”
Ramaphosa said he was horrified by the consequent violence and death at the mines.
“A long part of my life was spent serving mine workers. And there is just no way I could ever have said that mine workers should be killed. There is just no way. It is just defies any logic in me. I've served mine workers loyally and I sought to improve their lives, the condition of their employment and that is on the record.”
In the years since Ramaphosa left ANC politics, he became a businessman and Forbes reports he is worth $675 million dollars.
He brushed that off, refusing to say how much was worth when asked, but said it does not prevent him from connecting with the average South African.
“The members who elected me are fully aware of my situation. But I have been and I am a businessman. And the ANC is about change. The ANC is a political organization that welcomes everyone,” he said. “Now I can make a contribution to that. And it is my conscience that will be driving the actions that I have to take.”
Many suspect Ramaphosa’s new role as deputy president of the ANC is just a stepping stone for him to eventually become president. He acknowledged that he takes the party line when responding to inquires about leading South Africa one day: “Within the ANC you are chosen. You never choose yourself.”
He said that is exactly how he came to his newly-elected position in the ANC.
“I was minding my own business. And the people said we want you to come into this position. And I heeded that.”
He told Amanpour that he believes President Zuma will head the ticket in South Africa’s 2014 elections.
“He is going to be the face of our campaign and all members of the ANC are going to rally behind him,” he said. “Rally behind him to achieve the victory that our people want us to achieve. The ANC will emerge victorious in that election being led by President Zuma.”
CNN’s Claire Calzonetti & Juliet Fuisz produced this piece for television.