This is an excerpt from Anthony Butler, Cyril Ramaphosa (Jacana 2007).
Some ANC veterans – and even more white liberal observers – have struggled to come to terms with the affluence of the new black elite. Journalists love to dwell on ‘ostentatious displays of wealth’. One 1998 polemic ridiculed ‘the readiness of a liberation movement to be liberated into the bourgeois lifestyle of its opponents’. It commented that ‘Daring ties, silk and quasi-military style suits predominate among the male liberators; fancy hats and ostentatious dresses among the newly elevated female elite.’ Ramaphosa was singled out in this attack for his ‘weakness for fly-fishing and single-malt whiskies’.
For Ramaphosa such reporting has subtle racist undertones. ‘It’s almost like, “Here they are, the Johnny-come-latelies … Look at the type of cars they drive; look at the clothes they wear.” I find it despi- cable. Because quite often black people who are succeeding in business are not recognized for what they are achieving, but for how different they have now become.’
Ramaphosa sees no contradiction between the struggle for justice and the enjoyment of luxury. At times, and by necessity, Ramaphosa has lived a very modest life. Working at NUM in the middle of the 1980s, he was often at his desk for days at a time, with almost no sleep, earning R600 per month. But even as a student, he revelled in ‘bourgeois pleas- ures’ and there was nothing he liked better than to entertain. When he and his school friends took the train from Soweto to Doornfontein for their holiday work in the early 1970s, Cyril loved to dress up smartly ina suit an d tie – and, above all, to buy a first-class ticket.13 At the NUM he would fly first-class on union business.
The scholar Padraig O’Malley once asked Ramaphosa about the contrast between Nelson Mandela’s lavish inauguration and the wider poverty of the society. The ANC, after all, had indulged in a three-day post-election celebration at the Carlton Hotel in which ‘even the drapes were done in satin in ANC colours’. Ramaphosa’s comment was that ‘In the end, I think life has to be good for all our people’.
Such a statement is consistent with Ramaphosa’s earlier behaviour as NUM general secretary. He would insist – despite the union’s financial deficit – that union delegates must stay at the Johannesburg Sun Hotel. ‘I want the best for mineworkers,’ he would explain, arguing that they deserved to enjoy the same comforts as their mining-house counterparts.
Ramaphosa’s version of socialism seemingly demands that equality must be achieved by raising up and not by levelling down. Education, culture and the arts – but also good food, vintage wine, beautiful clothes, and fast cars – should not be reserved to the rich. Why should rich whites monopolise access to material and aesthetic goods?
The late Peter Mokaba wrote a discussion paper entitled ‘Through the Eye of a Needle’ that today guides ANC branch members in the choice of their leaders. The biblical reference seems to imply that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of the presidency. However, the eye of the needle is in fact an apocryphal gate in biblical Jerusalem providing access to the city after dark. The gate was built low so that a wealthy merchant’s camel would have to be unloaded of its treasures in order that the animal might crawl humbly and unburdened of wealth, on its knees, into the city.
It remains unclear if Ramaphosa would be willing to sacrifice his wealth for political office. Matthew 6. 24 is sometimes cited against him: ‘No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.’
In Ramaphosa’s youth, this passage would have been interpreted as concerning God’s insistence that human beings should not be preoccu- pied with money or with the necessities of life: ‘Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they?’18 Anxiety about material consumption is a sign that one is not yet fully committed to being a child of God. The desire to protect and provide for ourselves demonstrates that we have not yet understood that it is God, and not we, who is in control of the circumstances of our lives.
Today’s post-religious Ramaphosa exhibited some real sensitivity to allegations of crass materialism when a spokesman for DaimlerChrysler claimed in 2005 that Cyril had purchased a Maybach 62. The Maybach was priced at R3 million and it was widely reported to boast a television, a DVD player, and a 21-speaker surround sound system. Other adver- tised features included a refrigerator, a heated steering wheel, a golf-bag holder, and a set of fitted sterling silver champagne flutes.
For Ramaphosa a Maybach would have been ‘far too much of a conspicuous display of wealth in a sea of enormous poverty’.19 He com- plained that ‘I have spoken to DaimlerChrysler several times and asked them to apologise, but they have refused … I drive a BMW and I felt embarrassed to be associated with a car that is worth millions … They must correct the impression they have created.’
The company backed down and in settlement paid an undisclosed amount into one of Ramaphosa’s educational charities. Ramaphosa then had to respond to media speculation that the legal action was designed to protect his image because he wanted one day to return to politics. ‘That is absolute, absolute rubbish. That is really stretching it. I am acting to protect my personal interests.’