RAY HARTLEY: In the kraal of King Cyril
After the Great Stonewalling of my request for a contemporary interview, I was surprised when he phoned me one evening a few weeks ago ...
It was a strange experience. Cyril Ramaphosa was celebrating his 65th birthday with a party at the FNB convention centre in Sandton. Except it wasn't just a birthday party. It was also the launch of a book by Ramaphosa, Cattle of the Ages.
Guests included some fired cabinet ministers - Blade Nzimande, Pravin Gordhan - and a spread of the political, business and communist elite (only in South Africa) in favour of his campaign for the presidency.
The reason it was a strange experience was that I had just obtained the first copy of my book Ramaphosa: The man who would be king.
Mine was not an "authorised biography" of the type where the author has unlimited access to the subject and writes 600 pages of detailed description.
I had interviewed Ramaphosa in depth a while back and this had provided me with a useful perspective on his struggle with Thabo Mbeki for the deputy presidency (he told me he had been Nelson Mandela's first choice) back in the early '90s and countless other events that shaped his political life.
But when I approached his people for an interview on more recent developments, I found myself out in the cold. I was strung along with promises that it was being "viewed favourably".
They must have eventually taken an unfavourable view, or perhaps just tired of me, because the correspondence dwindled and then vanished.
I concluded that Ramaphosa was not keen to answer questions about recent political developments because the answers might compromise the delicate "insider-outsider" game he was playing within the ANC.
I devoted a chapter to this Kabuki dance under the heading, To the front line.
I was OK with not having too much access. Proximity and "authorisation" imply the ceding of some authorial independence and such biographies frequently drift into banal sycophancy. I have a weakness for banal sycophancy and it is probably better that this is not encouraged.
Instead, I stuck to my knitting, writing an account of Ramaphosa's politics and the forces that shaped - and threaten - him. I wanted to produce a toolkit for those wanting to make up their minds about a simple question: is Ramaphosa the man to save South Africa?
Back to Sandton on Friday evening.
I had been invited to the event by Ramaphosa himself. After the Great Stonewalling of my request for a contemporary interview, I was surprised when he phoned me one evening a few weeks ago.
He said he had only just learnt of my interview request. We agreed that it was a pity as the book was already being printed and would be on the shelves soon.
Would I attend the launch of his book? I agreed and not long afterwards an invitation arrived for the Sandton event.
I took a copy of my book with me and wandered around the cocktail tables on the lawn outside where the birthday throng was gathering. Thanks to Uber (and chauffeurs), the cocktails were going down well.
Ramaphosa was being greeted by a line of admirers. I joined the queue.
I shook his hand. He grinned.
"I have a book for you," I said, taking it out of my canvas back.
"I'm going to read it and tell you what I think," he replied.
I handed it to Donne Nicol, the CEO of the Cyril Ramaphosa Foundation.
Later on, when we were seated for the launch, I noticed with gratitude that she was already reading it. But then she probably had to.By now, the evening was in full swing. Seated in the crowd were Valli Moosa and Colin Coleman, whom I knew from back in the day when we were trying to orchestrate an insurrection.
Moosa became a cabinet minister and is now retired. Coleman is the head of Goldman Sachs in South Africa.
Ramaphosa's book, a lavish coffee-table tribute to the Ankole cattle breed, was the centrepiece of the evening. The cover depicted two bulls. Their impossibly large horns point up to the sky like inverted McDonald's arches. I wondered at the choice of this image. Photography's "rule of odd numbers" has been broken.
From the podium, a remarkable story unfolded.
Ramaphosa was in Uganda when he was struck by these beasts. The horns are hollow and when the animals walk together, the horns knock against each other, producing a unique and impressive other-worldly sound, according to those who have heard them.
He was visiting Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni. They talked. Ramaphosa wanted to bring some of the animals to his South African game farm, Ntaba Nyoni, but local agricultural officials were having none of it. The disease risk was too high.Such obstacles are a trifle for a man of Ramaphosa's wealth and connections. He purchased a selection of the cattle from Museveni (at the knock-down price of $200 a head - not bad considering that Ramaphosa would later sell one bull for R640,000) and trucked them over the border to Ol Pejeta in Kenya.
There, the herd grazed in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro, a tranquil existence rudely interrupted by the occasional intrusive "flushing" of embryos.
A South African veterinarian, Morné de la Rey, who had previously cloned a cow, was now working on cloning an entire herd. The harvested embryos were transported to South Africa, where they were tricked into believing they had been fertilised at De la Rey's Embryo Plus facility in Brits.
Voila! A herd of Ankole cattle emerged from the test tubes and were soon grazing on Ramaphosa's farm. The herd now numbers over 100 beasts.
Thoughts turned to how to celebrate this. Why not a book? A photographer, Daniel Naudé, was hired. He followed the cattle around, a pursuit not without its dangers. Although the breed is not aggressive by reputation, it would only take mild annoyance for one of those horns to cause serious damage.
This is a description which might apply to Ramaphosa himself. One of the speakers that evening was ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe. He said he needed to be around Ramaphosa to bring him under control when his "Scorpio" emerged. These were flashes of anger that needed to be headed off before they became destructive.
The book is called Cattle of the Ages. The title appears to be the product of a political calculation as the Ugandans call them the "cattle of the kings". Ramaphosa explained that such a title would have implied that the cattle were "for the elite", which they weren't.
He hammered on about this for some time and I began to feel self-conscious about my book's title, Ramaphosa: The man who would be king. Had he taken offence? Was this directed at me? Unlikely, I told myself. You know the line from the old song? "You're so vain, I bet you think this obscure reference is about you."
This article first appeared in Sunday Times Lifestyle