South Africa: Will Ramaphosa ride out the wave of highs and lows?

By Carien du Plessis
Posted on Wednesday, 8 June 2022 15:28

South Africa's President Ramaphosa and Germany's Chancellor Scholz hold joint news conference
South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa attends a joint news conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (not pictured) during his state visit to the government's Union Buildings in Pretoria, South Africa, May 24, 2022. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa has faced the highest and lowest point of his leadership in recent days. Claims that he covered up a robbery of millions of dollars from his farm were followed by the arrest of two state capture kingpins in Dubai.

The arrest of businessmen Rajesh and Atul Gupta represents the biggest breakthrough yet in the Ramaphosa administration’s fight against graft, as the brothers are alleged to have siphoned billions of rands of taxpayers’ money out of the country under Jacob Zuma’s presidency.

However, the allegations by former spy boss Arthur Fraser that Ramaphosa kept wads of cash stashed into furniture at his private game farm, Phala Phala, and paid off a domestic worker to keep quiet about a robbery two years ago, will seriously dent Ramaphosa’s image as an anti-corruption crusader who wants to renew the African National Congress (ANC).  

Parliamentary questions

Although the National Prosecuting Authority is initiating extradition proceedings against the Gupta brothers, Ramaphosa is preparing to face questions from members of parliament and the media.

Ramaphosa is set to present the presidency’s budget vote on Thursday and address a press conference the next day at the conclusion of the budget vote debate, as is the norm.

Opposition parties have already called on Ramaphosa to come clean on the allegations contained in a criminal complaint made by Fraser last week, charging that he has flouted corruption laws by not reporting the theft of around $4m to police.

Calls from opponents within the president’s own party for him to step aside while authorities investigate the allegations have been echoed by the Economic Freedom Fighters, the radical ANC breakaway opposition party headed by Julius Malema, and Bantu Holomisa, leader of the United Democratic Movement, a smaller opposition party that broke away from the ANC in 1999.

At a press conference on Wednesday, Malema accused Ramaphosa of money laundering and tax evasion, but he didn’t provide proof of the claim. He did, however, release a video purporting to be of the robbers at Ramaphosa’s home on 9 February 2020, while the president was attending the African Union summit in Addis Ababa.

Leader of the Democratic Alliance, John Steenhuisen, says Ramaphosa has a number of questions to answer, such as how much money was kept at the game farm and in what currency, how much of it was stolen, how the foreign currency entered the country, and how long it was on Ramaphosa’s property. “Were the correct exchange controls observed and does the president still hold foreign currency at his farm or any of his other properties?”

The party has also written to the SA Revenue Services and the SA Reserve Bank to investigate these issues.

 The ANC will protect him…

Ramaphosa has set his own pace for responding to questions, but over the weekend, he told a closing session of the ANC in Limpopo province, his home stronghold, that he has never stolen money, “be it from our taxpayers, be it from anywhere, and I will never do so. My integrity as a leader will never allow me to do so”.

Ramaphosa, who earned the nickname ‘Buffalo’ a decade ago after revelations that he bought a buffalo for R18m (approximately $1m), said the cash was unbanked proceeds from the sale of the game. He also said the amount in question is far less than what Fraser is claiming.

Ramaphosa’s supporters, too, have been at pains to portray Ramaphosa as the victim of a robbery, rather than a perpetrator of a crime. They have questioned Fraser’s motives of revealing the incident at this point of the ANC’s electoral cycle as well as his credibility.

[Ramaphosa] might not be punished as an individual because he is still very much the best of the ANC’s ticket.

In 2018, Ramaphosa removed Fraser as spy chief after allegations that Zuma used the State Security Agency as a personal political tool. Fraser was later appointed head of prisons, where he authorised Zuma’s release last year on medical parole, having only served a fraction of his sentence.

In a meeting held by the party’s national working committee on Monday 6 June, two of Ramaphosa’s main detractors – disgraced former MP Tony Yengeni and tourism minister Lindiwe Sisulu, a presidential hopeful – called on the president to account for the money before the party’s integrity commission – something he has agreed to do (the commission has previously found ways to be soft on transgressors). They also called on him to step aside, which is unlikely for now.

The majority of the 20-odd member committee came out in support of Ramaphosa and questioned Fraser’s motives.

An ANC insider says it’s unlikely that the allegations could harm Ramaphosa’s chances of re-election in December by the 5000 or so branch members expected to attend the party conference. “We’ve already seen how ANC members disregard transgressions. They elected an alleged murderer and a corrupted leader,” he says, with reference respectively to the party’s Mpumalanga treasurer Mandla Msibi and Ethekwini chair Zandile Gumede.

Zuma was elected in 2007 despite facing corruption charges, and re-elected in 2012 despite a report, which found that he used taxpayers’ money to upgrade his private residence in Nkandla with luxuries, such as a swimming pool and a village tuck shop.

A Ramaphosa campaigner says they’re confident that Ramaphosa “will go through uncontested” in December and that the biggest battles will be around his deputy and the party secretary general.

Party insiders also note that Ramaphosa’s detractors in the party haven’t decided on a candidate, with former health minister Zweli Mkhize, Sisulu, Zuma’s son Duduzane and suspended ANC secretary general Ace Magashule all mentioned as possible competitors for the top spot.

 … but this has complicated the ANC’s leadership contest

Details of Fraser’s charges are still sketchy, and although it’s clear that something untoward happened at the president’s game farm, it’s not clear whether charges will be brought against him.

Should Ramaphosa be charged with any crime, such as tax evasion or failing to report large cash transactions to the Financial Intelligence Centre, before the December conference, he might be forced to step aside in accordance with the ANC’s rules.

Should he refuse to do so, some of his detractors, like Magashule, who was suspended for refusing to step aside after he was charged with corruption, would argue that they have the right to return to their positions and run for office.

Should the possibility of charges after the ANC’s elective conference seem more likely, the contest around the deputy presidential position would become even more heated than it currently is, since the deputy would have to step up to fill Ramaphosa’s place.

Deputy president David Mabuza is said to be too ill to run for a second term, and besides, he has lost his support base in Mpumalanga, which has left the contest for the position wide open.

At least half a dozen contenders from the Ramaphosa and Zuma camps, as well as from outside these two, have put up their hands for the position. It however remains unclear whether Ramaphosa has a preferred candidate.

 What will happen to the ANC?

Even if ANC members remain unmoved, the allegations are likely to hurt Ramaphosa and the party’s outside support.

Reaction from civil society leaders, who were key players in helping to oust Zuma and install Ramaphosa, has thus far been slow.

The Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, for example, which has strongly opposed Zuma’s presidency and whose chairperson is ANC national executive committee member Derek Hanekom, has not yet commented on the matter.

Instead, Hanekom has posted tweets discrediting Yengeni and Fraser, and has retweeted statements by anti-corruption organisations praising the Gupta arrest.

The foundation has also released a statement praising the arrest of the Guptas, of which Hanekom retweeted.

There are also questions as to whether there is a suitable candidate to take over from Ramaphosa, should he step aside, since Mabuza doesn’t appear to be medically fit. There have also been major allegations of corruption against him, although he faces no charges currently.

With Ramaphosa’s credibility dented, the ANC could suffer at the ballot box in 2024 after its share of the vote dropped below 50% (to 47.9%) for the first time in the 2021 local government elections.

Ramaphosa has consistently polled higher than the party, meaning that there are voters who choose the ANC because of his leadership.

Milton Nkosi from the Africa Asia Dialogues think tank says the ANC has become a liability to itself and to the nation. “[Ramaphosa] might not be punished as an individual because he is still very much the best of the ANC’s ticket. If people want to punish Ramaphosa, they will punish the whole of the ANC, and that will only happen in 2024, when they’re unlikely to hit 50% of the national vote.” 

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