Ramaphosa is more like Erasmus than Martin Luther

South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers his state-of-the-nation address in the national Assembly on Friday evening. PHOTO: Phando Jikelo/ANA Photo

The Protestant Reformation is seen by some as the rebirth of a corrupted Christianity, and by others as the departure of a mistaken minority, who over time came to outnumber Catholics as they do today.  Luther was not the most radical of the Reformers, but he is probably the best known.

But it was the earlier work of Erasmus that unleashed Luther to write his 95 Theses and post them on the Wittenburg door.  Erasmus was one of the dominant figures of the early humanist movement, who never joined the Reform movement and remained a Catholic for all of his life.

Erasmus was neither a radical Reformer nor an apologist for the status quo.  It was his publication of a Greek New Testament, laden with his comments and questions, that brought on a theological revolution.  Then later, his views on the Reformation tempered its more radical elements.

African radicals are likely to protest that this comparison is already Euro-centric, but I plead that the Northern Europe of 1516 when Erasmus published his Greek New Testament and of 1517 when Luther posted his 95 Theses on the church door, was not guilty of colonialism.  In fact, nation-states did not really exist yet, they were just forming as the peoples of Northern Europe tried to shake off the yoke of Rome’s oppression.  Rome asserted its hegemony largely through church structures, which drew from the deep well of Christian beliefs and convictions.  So Christianity unified Europe, and Latin was still the lingua franca where ever you went (not English!).

The history of Capetown is instructive.  What Portugal had been seeking was another route to the Orient.  It was in 1488 that Bartholemeu Dias first rounded the Horn, which was long before the Dutch sent van Riebek to set up Capetown.  And at first that port was more of a supply stop en route to the Orient than a colony.

The initial aspirations were not so much for Colonialism as for an alternative trade route.  This is because Constantinople had fallen to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, putting a strangle-hold on the Silk Route to the Orient.  The “Reconquista” of Granada was only finished in 1492, so even the Spanish were not dreaming of a New World when they commissioned Columbus.

He was from Genoa, the centre of trade with Constantinople, and knew how important this alternative trade route aspiration was to Portugal and Spain.  He tried first to get the Portuguese to finance his “sail West” project, but they were succeeding with the Horn of Africa route so they didn’t see the point.  So he went to Spain where King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella decided to finance his venture.  Remember there was little inkling that the Americas were even there to colonize, when Columbus set sail in 1492.  He first landed at the Bahamas, then Dominican Republic… still thinking he was almost at Japan.

Cortez did not invade Mexico until 1519.  Pizarro invaded the Inca kingdom about 20 years after that.  So I think that one can justifiably excuse the Northern Europe of Erasmus and Luther from a Colonial agenda.  Cromwell didn’t even invade Ireland until 1649!  That was England’s first colonial project.

 At the age of 17, in 1483, Erasmus lost both his parents to the Black Death.  In 1492 – the same year that Columbus discovered the “Indies” (which turned out not to be the East as he thought it was) – poverty forced Erasmus into monastery life and he was ordained a Catholic priest, but it seems that he never actively worked as a cleric.

Erasmus’s life changed dramatically when he became secretary for Henry de Bergen, bishop of Chambray, who was impressed with his skill in Latin. The bishop enabled Erasmus to travel to Paris, France, to study classical literature and Latin, and it was there that he was introduced to Renaissance humanism.  While in Paris, Erasmus became known as an excellent scholar and lecturer. One of his pupils, William Blunt, Lord Montjoy, established a pension for Erasmus, allowing him to adopt a life of an independent scholar moving from city to city tutoring, lecturing and corresponding with some of the most brilliant thinkers of Europe.  He met great minds like Thomas More and John Colet, and moved between France, the Netherlands and England, writing some of his best works.

His translation of the New Testament into Greek in 1516 was a turning point in theology and the interpretation of scripture, and posed a serious challenge to theological thinking that had dominated universities since they first emerged.  Erasmus promoted the spread of classical knowledge to encourage a better morality, good governance and greater understanding between people.

St Jerome’s “Vulgate” was regarded as the Word of God.  But it was only a translation into “vulgar” (meaning everyday) Latin as opposed to the “high” Latin of Cicero and Julius Caesar.  Erasmus saw through this, and knew that by publishing a Greek New Testament with a lot of probing questions, he would be able to provoke debate and thus (he hoped) cause a cleansing of church corruption and oppression.

Only about 50 years earlier, Guttenberg had invented the printing press.  So Erasmus was using the cutting edge of technology to provoke debate and reform.

But the Protestant Reformation only erupted with the publication of Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses in 1517. For the next decade, Erasmus would be embroiled in an intellectual debate.  Though he supported Protestant ideals, he was against the radicalism of some of its leaders, and even condemned Luther’s methods.

Luther later (in hiding because of the political upheaval) translated the New Testament into German.  His translation had a defining effect on the emergence of Germany as a nation.  Just as the translation much later of the Bible into Afrikans had a defining effect on the “white tribe of Africa”.

It seems that by disposition, and perhaps because the recently elected Top Six is “split” with the Zuma faction, Ramaphosa is more of an Erasmus that a Martin Luther.  It seems that he proceeds too cautiously to really take on the challenge.  He does not seem to have the “fire in the belly” of a die-hard Reformer.

Certainly his arrival is most welcome, and a harbinger of change.  But as Luther was to find out, the status quo will not go down without a fight.  Rome was adamant that Reformers like Luther should recant of their views, and it continued to insist that its ways were justified.

“Zexit” is hopefully not just the departure of one leader, but of the Way of Leading that he has championed.

It has been called “Triumphalism” because its proponents behaved arrogantly, as if they would always remain in power, and thus were accountable to no one.  It sounds like Rome around 1500, raising funds to finance the Vatican by selling indulgences.

Erasmus tackled that triumphalism as a scholar and his Greek New Testament and probing questions certainly shook Rome’s foundations.  But he did not get militant like Luther and the other real Reformers.  Although it is interesting to see that Humanism – which Erasmus was one of the first to articulate – has given Christianity (both Catholic and Protestant together) a run for its money ever since!

My observation is that Luther the premiere Reformer had not yet emerged at the time that Erasmus started his probing.  I think that a new leader will soon emerge in South Africa who will eclipse Ramaphosa too.  Even though I admire what Ramaphosa is doing, to get rid of Zuma and Triumphalism.  Ramaphosa seems to have the temperament of an Erasmus, not of a Luther.

Last year the Save South Africa movement emerged.  Currently there is the #ZumaMustGo movement.  There are numerous opposition parties vying for Reform.  Organized labour is split into factions, some pro-Zuma, some anti-Zuma. 

There are a number of rising stars – among them Maimane, Malema, Vavi, Mapaila, Khoza – who are relatively young and bright.  They are the Luther, Calvin, Simmons, and Cramner of our time.  This is a Reformation of those who jointly protest against Triumphalist corruption and malpractice.  It is a democratic movement and it is likely to make Ramaphosa an important but moderate Reformer – not a radical.  Like Erasmus.  This is still a huge compliment. 

It is also a rebuke to the Zuma loyalists who remain.  Just like Saddam Hussein lighting the oil wells on fire as he retreated out of Kuwait, Zuma has left a legacy in the NPA and the Public Protector.  Even in the Top Six.  Thank God that the Triumphalists efforts to corrupt the Judiciary failed, that is what saved South Africa.

Erasmus would advise us to go back to the classics – the Constitution, the Freedom Charter, and to correct the course that led us astray.  Don’t look at the vulgar interpretation of these document, look again at the originals.  Ask impertinent questions.  Challenge authority.  And reform…

Chuck Stephens is the Executive Director of the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership and writes in his personal capacity