For Cyril Ramaphosa, the powerful African National Congress negotiator who helped bring an end to apartheid in the 1990s, the last week may have been the fight of his political life.

As he sat in closed-door talks with President Jacob Zuma to map out the terms of the embattled leader’s exit, Mr Ramaphosa was also drafting a plan for his own path – and long-held ambition – to South Africa’s presidency.

In December, after Mr Zuma’s final term as leader of the African National Congress came to an end, Mr Ramaphosa secured the party’s top job by a narrow margin, and has been shoring up support in the party in the weeks since.

He presented himself as the reform candidate in the run-up to the race,…

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