Widely respected as a skilful and formidable negotiator and strategist, Ramaphosa is best known for building up the biggest and most powerful trade union in South Africa — the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) — as well as for the crucial role he played, with Roelf Meyer of the National Party, during the negotiations to bring about a peaceful end to apartheid and steer the country towards its first democratic elections in April 1994.
He is married to Dr. Tshepo Motsepe and they have four children.
Although he spent most of his childhood in Soweto, he matriculated at Mphaphuli High School in Sibasa, Venda, in 1971. He subsequently registered to study law at the University of the North (Turfloop) in 1972.
While at university, Ramaphosa became involved in student politics and joined the South African Students Organisation (SASO), and the Black People's Convention (BPC). This resulted in him being detained in solitary confinement for eleven months in 1974 under Section 6 of the Terrorism act, for organising pro-Frelimo rallies. In 1976 he was detained for a second time, and held for six months. After his release, he became a law clerk for a Johannesburg firm of attorneys and continued his studies through the University of South Africa (UNISA), where he obtained his B. Proc. Degree in 1981.
After obtaining his degree, Ramaphosa joined the Council of Unions of South Africa (CUSA) as a legal advisor. In 1982, CUSA requested that Ramaphosa start a union for mineworkers; this new union was launched in the same year and was named the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). Ramaphosa was arrested in Lebowa, on the charge of organising or planning to take part in a meeting in Namakgale which was banned by the local magistrate.
Ramaphosa was elected as the first General Secretary of the union, a position he held until he resigned in June 1991, following his election as Secretary General of the African National Congress (ANC). Under his leadership, union membership grew from 6,000 in 1982 to 300,000 in 1992, giving it control of nearly half of the total black workforce in the South African mining industry. As General Secretary, he also led the mineworkers in one of the biggest strikes ever in South African history.
In 1985, the NUM broke away from CUSA and helped to establish the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). When COSATU joined forces with the United Democratic Front (UDF) political movement against the National Party government of P. W. Botha, Ramaphosa took a leading role in what became known as the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM).
When Nelson Mandela was released from prison, Ramaphosa was on the National Reception Committee.
After he lost the race to become President of South Africa to Thabo Mbeki, he resigned from his political positions in January 1997 and moved to the private sector, where he became a director of New Africa Investments Limited. He came in first place in the 1997 election to the ANC's National Executive Committee.
The media continually speculates on Ramaphosa joining the race for the presidency of the ANC in 2007, before the 2009 South African presidential election. However, he has stated that he is not interested in the presidency. On 2 September 2007, The Sunday Times reported that Ramaphosa was now in the election race, but by that evening he released a statement once again holding back on any commitment.
In December 2007, he was again elected to the ANC National Executive Committee, this time in 30th place with 1,910 votes.
Among other positions, he is executive chairman of Shanduka Group, a company he founded. Shanduka Group has investments in the Resources Sector, Energy Sector, Real Estate, Banking, Insurance, and He is also chairman of the Bidvest Group, and MTN. His other non-executive directorships include Macsteel Holdings, Alexander Forbes, Standard Bank and SABMiller. In March 2007 he was appointed Non-Executive joint Chairman of Mondi, a leading international paper and packaging group, when the company demerged from Anglo American plc.
Among others, Ramaphosa has received honorary doctorates from the University of Natal, the University of Port Elizabeth, the University of Cape Town, the University of the North, the University of Lesotho, the University of Massachusetts and the University of Pennsylvania. In October 1991, he was a visiting Professor of Law at Stanford University.
In his role as a businessman, Ramaphosa is a member of the Coca-Cola Company International Advisory Board as well as the Unilever Africa Advisory Council. He was also the first deputy chairman of the Commonwealth Business Council.
Along with the ex-president of Finland, Martti Ahtisaari, he was appointed an inspector of the Irish Republican Army weapons dumps in Northern Ireland. Ramaphosa is the Honorary Consul General for Iceland in Johannesburg, South Africa.
In the 2007–2008 Kenyan crisis, which followed the disputed re-election of President Mwai Kibaki in December 2007, Ramaphosa was unanimously chosen by the mediation team headed by Kofi Annan to be the chief mediator in charge of leading long-term talks; however, Kibaki's government expressed dissatisfaction with the choice of Ramaphosa, saying that he had business links with Kibaki's opponent Raila Odinga, and on February 4 Annan accepted Ramaphosa's withdrawal from the role of chief mediator. According to Ramaphosa, Odinga had visited him in 2007, but he did not have any "special interest" that would lead him to favor one side or the other; however, he said that he could not be an effective mediator without "the trust and confidence of all parties" and that he therefore felt it would be best for him to return to South Africa to avoid becoming an obstacle in the negotiation process.