* Ramaphosa one of front runners in ANC leadership race
* Mandela wanted Ramaphosa as heir, but Mbeki chosen
* Ramaphosa has vowed to tackle corruption, mend economy
* Investor favourite after successful business career
By Alexander Winning
JOHANNESBURG, Dec 16 (Reuters) - The nearly man of South African politics, Cyril Ramaphosa, is at last in with a chance of becoming president after being overlooked for years.
Ramaphosa’s political abilities have been apparent for decades. Whenever Nelson Mandela needed a breakthrough in talks to end apartheid, he would turn to the then trade union leader with a reputation as a tenacious negotiator.
Using skills honed in pay disputes with mining bosses, Ramaphosa steered those talks to a successful conclusion, allowing Mandela to sweep to power in 1994 as head of the African National Congress.
Mandela wanted Ramaphosa to be his heir but was pressured into picking Thabo Mbeki by a group of ANC leaders who had fought apartheid from exile.
It has taken more than two decades for Ramaphosa, now deputy president, to get another chance to run the country.
The 65-year-old is one of the two favourites to become ANC leader at a party vote this weekend. Whoever wins the ANC race will probably be the country’s next president because of the ruling party’s electoral dominance.
“Ramaphosa’s ambition for the presidency has been clear through his whole adult life. He was quite clearly wounded by his marginalisation in the Mbeki period,” said Anthony Butler, a politics professor who has written a biography of Ramaphosa.
The choice between Ramaphosa and his main rival for the ANC’s top job, former cabinet minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, will help determine the pace of reform in South Africa and affect how the country gets on with foreign powers.
A trained lawyer with an easygoing manner, Ramaphosa has vowed to fight corruption and revitalise an economy which has slowed to a near-standstill under President Jacob Zuma.
That message has gone down well with foreign investors and ANC members who think Zuma’s handling of the economy could cost the party dearly in 2019 parliamentary elections.
Dlamini-Zuma has promised a radical brand of wealth redistribution which is popular with poorer ANC voters who are angry at racial inequality.
While Ramaphosa, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has backed “radical economic transformation”, an ANC plan to tackle inequality, he tends to couch his policy pronouncements in more cautious terms.
Analysts say the race between Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma, who was previously married to President Zuma, is too close to call.
Unlike Zuma or Dlamini-Zuma, Ramaphosa was not driven into exile for opposing apartheid, which some of the party’s more hardline members hold against him.
He fought the injustices of white minority rule from within South Africa, most prominently by defending the rights of black miners as leader of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).
A member of the relatively small Venda ethnic group, Ramaphosa was able to overcome divisions that sometimes constrained members of the larger Zulu and Xhosa groups.
A massive miners’ strike led by Ramaphosa’s NUM in 1987 taught business that “Cyril was a force to be reckoned with,” said Michael Spicer, a former executive at Anglo American.
“He has a shrewd understanding of men and power and knows how to get what he wants from a situation,” Spicer said.
The importance of Ramaphosa’s contribution to the talks to end apartheid is such that commentators have referred to them in two distinct stages: BC and AC, Before Cyril and After Cyril.
Ramaphosa also played an important role in the drafting of South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution.
After missing out on becoming Mandela’s deputy, Ramaphosa withdrew from active political life, switching focus to business.
His investment vehicle Shanduka - Venda for “change” - grew rapidly and acquired stakes in mining firms, mobile operator MTN and McDonald’s South African franchise.
Phuti Mahanyele, a former chief executive at Shanduka, recalled that Ramaphosa was a passionate leader who required staff to contribute to charitable projects aimed at improving access to education for the underprivileged.
By the time Ramaphosa sold out of Shanduka in 2014, the firm was worth more than 8 billion rand ($584 million in today’s money), making Ramaphosa one of South Africa’s 20 richest people.
To his supporters, Ramaphosa’s business success makes him well-suited to the task of turning around an economy grappling with 28 percent unemployment and credit rating downgrades.
In the Johannesburg township of Soweto last month, Ramaphosa called for a “new deal” between business and government to spur economic growth.
Pravin Gordhan, a respected former finance minister, told Reuters that if Ramaphosa was elected ANC leader, “the whole narrative about South Africa’s economy would change for the better within three months”.
Signs that Ramaphosa has done well in the nominations by ANC branches that precede the leadership vote have driven a rally in the rand in recent weeks.
But Ramaphosa has his detractors too.
He was a non-executive director at Lonmin when negotiations to halt a violent wildcat strike at its Marikana platinum mine in 2012 ended in police shooting 34 strikers dead.
An inquiry subsequently absolved Ramaphosa of guilt. But some families of the victims still blame him for urging the authorities to intervene.
“My conscience is that I participated in trying to stop further deaths from happening,” Ramaphosa said recently about the Marikana deaths.
Others are unconvinced that Ramaphosa, who has been deputy president since 2014, will be as tough on corruption as his campaign rhetoric suggests.
Bantu Holomisa, an opposition politician and former ANC member who worked closely with Ramaphosa in the 1990s, said he was by nature cautious.
“Cyril has been part of the machinery and has not acted on corruption so far,” Holomisa said. “It is not clear whether he will if he gets elected.” ($1 = 13.6947 rand)
Editing by James Macharia and Giles Elgood