He was once Nelson Mandela’s right-hand man and managed intense union negotiations at a critical point in our country’s history.
He was at the forefront of negotiations that helped South Africa ease into a democratic era and more recently he survived a bruising election battle to claim the top seat of the ruling ANC. Yet ask Cyril Ramaphosa what his proudest achievement is and the answer has nothing to do with politics – and everything to do with a herd of cattle that roam the fertile lands near Badplaas in Mpumalanga.
It’s here the president of SA feels most at home. The place where he can walk in his farmer’s uniform of long pants and khaki shirt without being followed by bodyguards. This is a place where he could follow in the footsteps of his father, Samuel Mundzhedzi Ramaphosa, who once looked after his father and uncle’s cattle on the open plains of Khalavha in Venda.
His farm, Ntaba Nyoni, is where you’ll find one of his most-prized possessions: his beloved Ankole cattle herd. Ramaphosa’s home away from home is an impressive 5 100-hectare farm protected by a massive entrance gate with four cement eagles mounted at the top.
“The farm is his world,” an acquaintance of the president, who lives in the area, tells us. The homestead is surrounded by palm trees and filled with feed troughs for Bonsmara and Boran cattle. Ramaphosa visits the farm at least once a month. He hasn’t slept in the four bedroom home for at least four years because of his busy schedule but he always makes time to visit his cattle, which he’s said are as “precious to me [as] my own children”.
Ramaphosa first fell in love with the Ankole breed of cattle when he saw them in Uganda in 2004 while visiting President Yoweri Museveni’s farm. The Banyankole people of Uganda call them “the king’s cattle”. “Down below were magnificent creatures that simply astonished me,” he writes in Cattle of the Ages: Stories and Portraits of the Ankole Cattle of Southern Africa, his photographic book about Ankole cattle released last year.
“They each had long, white, beautiful horns glinting in the African sun, and I suddenly became fixated and couldn’t stop looking at them. I was intrigued and in awe and fell in love with these creatures immediately.” So transfixed was Ramaphosa with these cattle he brought the breed to South Africa, and he’s now the single biggest Ankole farmer in the country.
His love for the animals is well-documented in the book, where he details just how precious the beasts with their striking horns are to him. He has names for each – ranging from Thanyani, which means beautiful, to Dembe, which means miracle.
In addition to the farm, Ramaphosa has a butchery and an abattoir in town. “He’s someone who really cares about his fellow humans,” one of the neighbours says. “When my children were small and we’d see him he’d always say hello to the kids first. “He’d ask them about their schoolwork. Then he’d greet my wife, and finally he’d say hello to me.”
Western Cape farmer Nico Lerm, who also farms Ankole, says Ramaphosa is clearly a grounded man.
When they met at the first meeting of the Ankole Breeders Society in Centurion in February he had no airs and graces about him. “When Cyril arrived at the meeting he told his bodyguards to stay outside,” Nico recalls. “Then he greeted everyone, turned around and made himself coffee. Then he asked if anyone else would like some. He made coffee for nearly everyone at the meeting.” Nico was so taken with the new president he bought a bull from him and named it Ramaphosa. Nico breeds Ankole mainly for hunting purposes “because their impressive horns are so sought after by hunters”. And it’s those magnificent horns Ramaphosa wanted to capture in his photographic book. What makes this breed so interesting, says Ramaphosa’s farm manager, Kobus Rall, is that their horns are hollow.
This allows the animals to regulate their body temperature. The horns contain a system of blood vessels where blood is cooled before it’s circulated back into the body. As we walk around the farm a bakkie pulls up. A man in a yellow T-shirt gets out, smiling. He introduces himself as Randy Cangale and says he’s in charge of Ramaphosa’s herd.
“Cyril is like a father to me,” he adds. “After school he took me under his wing. He saw my potential when I was farming on my own smallholding in Badplaas.” Randy’s big dream was to study agriculture – a dream Ramaphosa helped to make come true. Today Randy proudly holds a degree in animal science and plant production.
Becoming the biggest Ankole farmer in South Africa wasn’t an easy task, even for someone accustomed to tackling tough challenges. The president’s first calf was born about 14 years ago and luckily he’d bought his farm in 2001, before he’d fallen in love with the breed. Ramaphosa wanted to import the animals directly from Uganda in 2004 but the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries at the time didn’t give him permission as they believed Uganda didn’t have a sufficient cattle disease control programme. He wouldn’t give up though and bought 43 of Museveni’s cattle and moved them to Ol Pejeta in Kenya.
There he and Dr Morné de la Rey, a veterinarian and the director of Embryo Plus, artificially inseminated his cows. The embryos were brought to South Africa and inserted into Bonsmara and Boran cows. And a few months later he was the proud papa of his first Ankole calf. Today Ramaphosa is one of 13 farmers in South Africa who breed these beasts and he couldn’t be happier about it.
“There are many things I’m intensely passionate about: my country and its people, my family, education and youth empowerment, fly-fishing, the African National Congress and economic transformation – particularly the development of small and medium enterprises,” he writes in his book.
“Little did I know, however, that there was a space in my heart for one thing more.” The animals mean a great deal to him. “Their spiritual effect on me is to remind me of the immense importance of gratitude and contentment in the here and now.”