FERIAL HAFFAJEE: Cyril. The Money. And the Kim Kardashian cows
Old-style socialist rhetoric has a grip on the South African narrative
Ankole cattle are the Kim Kardashians of the bovine world. Pouty, curvaceous and gorgeous, they love posing. At Everard Read gallery in Johannesburg, an exhibition shows them off in glorious photographs. President Cyril Ramaphosa is a keen breeder of Ankole cattle, and some of his cows are on display at the exhibition. In a book about the cattle, he wrote: "I was intrigued and in awe and fell in love with these creatures immediately. President [Yoweri] Museveni of Uganda and I exchanged a few pleasantries, but I couldn't help myself. 'Please,' I said, 'You must tell me about these cattle. They are simply beautiful.'"
The president has many nicknames, but the most common is "Buffalo" - a reference to his matching passion for the horned beasts.
I've covered black empowerment for as long as I've been a journalist, and I was there when Ramaphosa made his first foray into wealth accumulation in 1996. As the most prominent member of the National Empowerment Consortium, it was Ramaphosa who shook on it with Nicky Oppenheimer as this first BEE behemoth took over a smorgasbord of stakes in major companies through its purchase of what was then Johnnic. I remember Ramaphosa holding his son's shoulder and pointing up at the skyscraper where the deal had just been signed. It was a transformational moment.
Trade unionists like Ramaphosa and his comrades Marcel Golding and Irene Charnley inked the deal - using a mineworkers' pension fund as collateral - that would go on to make all of them billionaires. It was also broad-based. The deal led to the formation of the Mineworkers Investment Company, which has allowed the National Union of Mineworkers to survive and thrive, and services its members despite a massive downturn in mining. That first transaction saw Ramaphosa go on to amass a personal fortune of R6.4-billion. With his family, he owns 31 properties, among them farms and coastal homes. He is also building a beautiful pad along the Atlantic Seaboard in Fresnaye.
Ramaphosa did not get his farms through expropriation. He bought them. An AgriSA audit of land sales in the freedom years has revealed that the market has been a much more efficient distributor of land over 20 years than the state has been. Ramaphosa, along with his new mineral resources minister, Gwede Mantashe, is a symbol of a generation of black farmers who have bought land and are farming passionately. They don't make it into the fiery land expropriation debate because it's an inconvenient truth, as is black accumulation of wealth.
When news leaked that Ramaphosa had bid R18-million for a buffalo a few years ago, EFF leader Julius Malema made such a racket that Ramaphosa had to apologise for the bid. Since then, his wealth has become something he does not showcase. Never mind that Malema has a penchant for life's finer things: to watch him arrive in an ice-white Land Rover sporting watches and belts so fine they fill your eyes with tears is quite something. The red overalls, we all forget, is a brilliant but recent costume.
It's great that South Africa has a wealthy president, and not only for the crude reason Mantashe outlines. The new boss of mining recently said: "We have a president who has money, who is wealthy, who will not be tempted to steal." He left lingering the ellipsis, "like our last president".
Apartheid dispossession and asset stripping have made wealth a bad thing if you are black. The reasons are legion - the wealth gap within the black community is too big for comfort for many. Old-style socialist rhetoric, which is uncomfortable with wealth, has a grip on the South African narrative.
I hope Ramaphosa uses his personal example of success to overturn this pattern and take land out of the realm of hot rhetoric into cool aspiration. And that he will challenge the business economy to take a hard look at its model of capitalism and see how it leads to a rhetoric of deprivation over aspiration.