As head of a powerful mineworkers' union during the struggle against apartheid, Cyril Ramaphosa led a strike that erupted into clashes with police and left 11 people dead.
Today, Mr Ramaphosa, one of the most venerable members of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), sits on the board of directors of the company that owns the Marikana mine, where 34 striking workers were killed by police last week.
The agitating outsider-turned-wealthy insider is now vilified by some South Africans in the same terms he once criticised the pillars of white minority rule.
It is this turn of the tables that illustrates the multitude of challenges South Africa still faces 18 years after the end of apartheid.
The violence that broke out at Marikana did not stem solely from grievances over wages and working conditions. It also reflected the black majority's disappointment that institutional reform has not kept pace with many people's expectations of what would come with the end of white minority rule.
Questions have also been raised about what unions are doing to protect workers' rights, as well as the black elite's comfortable relationship with big business, such as Mr Ramaphosa's relationship with Lonmin, the owner of the mine.
For the majority of black South Africans, including platinum miners at Marikana, life is a desperate struggle, and ambitions of joining the middle class are unlikely to be realised.
"The miners work hard, long hours," said Karin Labuschagne, a reporter for JacarandaFM News who covered the shooting. "Some are breadwinners with more than 10 dependents. The miners are fed up."
The police's reaction often compounds the problem. "We're heading towards a critical point both politically and economically. The public and private sector are under serious pressure to reduce inequality," said Murray Ingram, the director of the non-profit organisation Connect Community in Cape Town.
After 1994, the South African Police Force was renamed the South African Police Service, a subtle change to distance the institution from its brutal past. But Mr Ingram believes the police system is "a ticking time bomb".
As at Marikana, the police often respond to protests in a heavy-handed fashion.
"The police are seriously compromised by massive corruption and maladministration," said Mr Ingram. "Our police officers are also seriously underpaid and many encounter violence all too frequently."
The Marikana massacre underscored South Africa's compromised transition to democracy, which protected white business interests but installed some black entrepreneurs in influential private-sector positions.
The influential National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), which Mr Ramaphosa once led, has been accused of aligning itself too closely with predominantly white mine owners.
The Democratic Alliance (DA), the ANC's biggest rival, said Marikana was "a symptom of intense poverty and inequality in South Africa".
"People need to be empowered with better education and skills development, but we also need to generate economic growth that creates opportunities. This will avert the kind of economic desperation that led to the Marikana tragedy," said Mmusi Maimane, the DA's spokesman.
But the government's attempts to institute police reform and narrow the income gap between rich and poor have been complicated by internal division within the ANC.
The deaths of 34 miners came four months before the ANC's policy conference in Mangaung, where Jacob Zuma will seek re-election as the leader of the party, which is the first step towards a second term as president of South Africa.
He said last week that "the nation is hard at work addressing the persistent challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality". He also took pains to allay global concern, noting South Africa's thriving relationship "with international investors and development partners".
For populists such as Julius Malema, the expelled former leader of the ANC's youth wing who was once touted as a future president, the ANC leadership's close relationship with big business is unacceptable. Marikana, he believes, offers further evidence that South Africa's economy needs a radical overhaul.
Mr Malema, who has been accused of benefiting financially from his ANC connections, addressed Lonmin miners at the weekend and repeated his call for the nationalisation of mines to spread the wealth.
He demanded that Mr Zuma resign over the shootings, accused the NUM of having a stake in mining companies and raged that "the miners were killed to protect the shares of Cyril Ramaphosa".
"This address, in a way, showed that he was still relevant, even though he no longer had a recognised political platform," said Ms Labuschagne. "Going to Mangaung, Malema will continue playing on his relevance in the hope of having his expulsion overturned."
The black elite, meanwhile, is accused of exploiting its links with the ANC, while the unions that ought to protect the poorest of the poor seem to operate at the behest of the wealthy classes.
And with the ANC hobbled by internecine strife, the opposition DA (although pooling a record 6 per cent of the black vote) greatly outgunned by the ruling party, it is ordinary black South Africans who remain marginalised.
"It's the poor who have been hung out to dry, there's no doubt about it," said Mr Ingram.
This article has been corrected since publication. Julius Malema, the former leader of the ANC’s youth wing, was most recently expelled, not suspended.