The Presidents Cattle

The story of a passion


Biography is a popular and successful genre in South Africa, especially the biographies of the rich, famous and infamous. Readers are hooked on the tales spun around the lives of the powerful, be they criminals, entrepreneurs, politicians or, as is frequently alleged to be the case, a combination of all three; the more controversial the life, it seems, the greater the number of biographies (the fourth President of South Africa has been the subject of at least five books).

When it comes to President Cyril Ramaphosa, however, one has to go back to 2008 to find a biography (by Anthony Butler) of “one of South Africa’s most celebrated political leaders and his contributions to the country’s liberation movement”. So much has changed since then, so much history has unfolded, that a fresh source is required for those who hunger for insight into the passions and motivations of the man who became our fifth president so dramatically this year. Fortunately, this insight is available in the form of a book penned by the man himself.

The subject of the book is twofold. First, it speaks of cattle: the Ankole cattle breed from Uganda, ‘the Cattle of Kings’ known for their soaring horns, and Ramaphosa’s quest to establish his own herd of these animals, in which grace and power are lyrically combined. Second, it speaks of Ramaphosa’s bid to fulfil the legacy of his father, whose cattle-breeding ambitions were thwarted by the hardships of the Apartheid era, forcing him to abandon his herd in Venda and trek to Johannesburg as a migrant worker in order to support his family—a story familiar to millions of families throughout South Africa and, consequently, one of universal interest.

“Like many of the men of my father’s generation, he had no choice but to go to the city of Johannesburg to find work. His traditions, his wealth and his very identity were left behind, and whatever wealth he had built up would later be eroded,” Ramaphosa writes in the book. “I am sure my late cattle-loving father would have been proud to see that I have become a cattle breeder.”

It was Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni who introduced Ramaphosa to the Ankole cattle breed in October 2003. “I was on a business trip to Uganda, and that is where the fire was lit. Upon hearing that I was visiting his country, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni invited me to visit him at his cattle ranch. I wasn’t the deputy president of South Africa at the time, but I was told that inviting heads of state and business leaders to his ranch was something of a tradition for the Ugandan president, so naturally we accepted the invitation,” he writes.

For Ramaphosa, it was a case of love at first sight:

“I was intrigued and in awe and fell in love with these creatures immediately. President Museveni 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,’” Ramaphosa writes.

It turns out that the Ankole lineage stretches back before the remotest living memory. Ramaphosa explains: “Historically and scientifically speaking, the Ankole can be traced back thousands of years before our time—even before the time of the Banyankole in Uganda or the Tutsi in Rwanda, who both love these cattle equally (they are called Watusi cattle in Rwanda). We find them in cave drawings and other cultural murals, and in many oral traditions. We find them in the histories of India and Ethiopia, Egypt and Europe. In fact, the Ankole’s heritage stretches as far back as 8 000 years to the wild aurochs, the first cattle to be domesticated by humans. And some think the aurochs may have grazed the earth for over a hundred thousand years before humans came into the picture.”

Immediately, Ramaphosa resolved to bring this incredible legacy to the country of his birth.

“My visit to Uganda made it clear to me that these cattle could bring many advantages to the cattle-farming community in South Africa, and so I set to work to bring some Ankole to our country,” he writes. “But there were several barriers to overcome. After reaching a sale-and-purchase agreement with President Museveni, I returned home and immediately contacted the Department of Agriculture to see how I should go about bringing the Ankole to South Africa and getting them registered as a new breed.”

Bringing live animals into South Africa was not as simple a proposition as it might sound.

“The department was concerned about different strains of animal diseases from that part of Africa; and about South Africa’s lack of knowledge concerning animal disease-control measures in Uganda. I found this incredible and felt almost mortally disappointed at the prohibition. .. But I knew I could not give up so easily,” he writes.

A cunning plan was formulated: Ramaphosa worked with local embryo-transfer experts to clone the Ankole cattle in South Africa from embryos harvested from Museveni’s herd. The first calves were born in 2007. The lineage had been cloned.

Now, eleven years after the birth of the first Ankole on South African soil, Ramaphosa is one of the biggest breeders on the African continent.

“I am sure that my cattle-loving father would have been proud to see I have become a cattle breeder,” writes Ramaphosa. “That I have become a breeder of three stud cattle—the Boran, a Kenyan breed; the Bonsmara, a South African breed developed by Professor Jan Bonsma; and, of course, the Ankole—would have amazed and pleased him no end.”

The prize bull

As one would expect from someone with the finely honed business instincts of President Ramaphosa, the Ankole herd has also proved to be a shrewd business investment. In fact, last year, one of his Ankole bulls went for R640 000 at the Ntaba Nyoni auction near Ermelo in Mpumalanga—the first auction of Ankole and Ankole crossbreeds in South Africa.

Ramaphosa’s bull—Lot 35, NANK10-115, with a right horn length of over 110cm, a left horn length of more than 114cm and a tip-to-tip horn length of over 129cm—fetched the highest price of any bull at the auction.

Now a registered breed, Ankole is administered by the Afrikaner Cattle Breeders’ Society of South Africa.

Ankole meat is naturally low in cholesterol and high in polyunsaturated fatty acids, two purely genetic traits that neither development nor feeding can attain. 

Quinton January


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Issue 83


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