South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, his cows and the case of the hidden millions

By Romain Chanson

Posted on Tuesday, 4 October 2022 12:14
South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa near a herd of ankoles. © DR

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa is accused of having kept quiet about being robbed in 2020, when thieves got their hands on funds of suspicious origin at his farm in Phala Phala. This case threatens to poison his term in office.

Farmers Weekly, a weekly magazine read by South African farmers, published a photo of Cyril Ramaphosa wearing a red chequered gentleman-farmer shirt, beige trousers held tightly by a belt and off-road shoes, as he posed next to a herd of ankoles. Because before coming to power in 2018, and at the same time as he was making investments in mining, Ramaphosa had made a name for himself by raising cattle.

In 2004, he introduced the prestigious Ankola breed from Uganda to South Africa. President Yoweri Museveni sold him cows and bulls to start his herd. The animal is renowned for its milk, meat and leather. The impressive ankole, which is characterised by its huge half-moon-shaped horns that face the sky, is a favourite with private game reserve owners looking to impress their visitors. Ramaphosa is passionate about this sacred cow and compiled a photo album showcasing it in 2017. Today, his opponents wear t-shirts bearing the image of this animal and accuse him of having hidden millions of dollars made from selling his herds.

Cash cow

The president-herder makes a lot of money from this passion. Ramaphosa sells his luxury animals at auction, either online or from Phala Phala, one of his farms, located in the Limpopo province, north of Pretoria. His brother-in-law, Patrice Motsepe, president of the Confederation of African Football (CAF), is one of his buyers. The African football boss paid €120,000 for one of them in March 2022.

Ramaphosa has opened up his business to other species, often rare, such as black hippotrague (antelope), African buffalo and wagyu cattle. This lucrative business had never been questioned until last June. It is only a problem now because there is uncertainty over whether the money generated by these sales was properly declared.

On 1 June 2022, a man named Arthur Fraser filed a complaint against Ramaphosa. He is a close associate of former president Jacob Zuma and was his intelligence chief between 2016 and 2018. But the spy and Zuma’s tenures ended when Ramaphosa pushed Zuma out of office and replaced him as president.

When Zuma went into forced retirement, Fraser was rehired in the prison service. In June 2021, the former head of state was sentenced to 15 months in prison for contempt of court. Fraser got him out on medical grounds however after only two short months in prison. This decision is currently being challenged in court.

Today, even though Fraser no longer holds any office, he continues to be active in the intelligence and security community. He claims that he is regularly presented with sensitive documents, which is why he is asking the police to investigate the head of state for suspected money laundering and corruption, following “the information, documents, photos and videos that have been brought to [his] attention,” he says in his statement. Fraser provides the precise timing of the surveillance cameras that captured the intrusion into Ramaphosa’s estate to those who doubt the reliability of his tips. The head of state would be extremely concerned if these documents got leaked.

After 10 pm on 9 February 2020, when the president was travelling to Ethiopia for the African Union summit, burglars cut through the fence at Phala Phala farm. The team of thieves had come from the neighbouring township and did not go in blind. A domestic employee had tipped them off that a large sum of money was hidden in the president’s furniture. Up to $4m dollars was said to be stuffed under a sofa’s mattress. In reality, it was more like $600,000 that was stolen from a wardrobe, according to the News24 media.

Outside the law

After the burglary was discovered, Ramaphosa informed Major-General Wally Rhoode, who is in charge of presidential protection. According to Fraser, the head of state entrusted Rhoode with a secret mission: to investigate, find the suspects and recover the money discreetly.

This opaque process has fueled Fraser’s accusations, which include demanding why the burglary was not formally reported to the police; why suspects were questioned outside of any legal framework, which is similar to kidnapping; revealing that household staff were bribed to keep them quiet (more than €8,500 offered to each); and providing proof that public resources were used to conduct a private investigation as far as Namibia, where some of the suspects are originally from. And, finally, that foreign currency of suspicious origin was concealed. “I realise that it is no small thing to accuse a sitting president of criminal acts, but I do so in the interests of our justice and Constitution,” writes Fraser from the innocent pen of a whistleblower.

The day after the complaint was lodged, the presidency confirmed the robbery and defended itself. Firstly, the proceeds made from selling livestock were stolen and no money laundering was involved. Secondly, the robbery was reported to the major general, who is attached to the South African Police Force. Thirdly, the accusations of criminal behaviour are unfounded and the president is cooperating with investigators. Eight different authorities are now involved in this matter, according to Ramaphosa. Although he says he is prepared to answer questions, he refuses to speak outside the scope of the investigations.

The head of state has remained silent in the face of the integrity committee of his party, the African National Congress (ANC). The Ombudsman also tried her luck. On 7 June, Busisiwe Mkhwebane opened an investigation and asked Ramaphosa 31 questions. The next day, she was dismissed.

This contested figure is widely criticised for her incompetence and close relationship with the deposed president Zuma. She was threatened with a parliament-launched impeachment procedure. However, her hasty dismissal has raised questions and was overturned by a court of justice that deemed it “inappropriate”. This is a setback for Ramaphosa, as it gives the impression that he is shirking his duties.

On 30 August, he was not physically present at the National Assembly when he faced the parliament members. Via a video link, the president said he would reserve his explanations for the relevant authorities. “While it is obvious that some people and organisations are trying to take advantage of this situation, I think the best response is to allow justice to take its course,” he said.

Faced with this unease, the Phala Phala case was put back on the agenda during a round of questioning on 29 September. Parliamentarians are still trying to figure out why Ramaphosa did not simply file a complaint. The president failed to convince anyone with his defence.

Deja vu

Since the scandal broke, the National Assembly has been in turmoil, with the opposition firing at the president on sight. Members of the radical Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party disrupted parliamentary sessions until they were thrown out of the chamber on contempt charges. Their leader, Julius Malema, described the head of state as a “kidnapper”, referring to the interrogations that his henchmen carried out.

The atmosphere is reminiscent of the Zuma years and the Nkandla affair. The former president was pinned down for using public money to finance the work on his private residence in Nkandla. Malema’s EFF took great pleasure in turning Zuma’s every appearance in parliament into a demonstration demanding his resignation. “Give back the money,” they chanted in 2014.

Although Zuma survived the impeachment proceedings, the scandal-plagued the rest of his term in office. Ramaphosa could suffer the same fate, as the self-proclaimed herald of the anti-corruption fight is now under fire. But the ANC continues to rally behind its president. Like a herd of ankoles, the ruling party knows that it must stay together if it is to survive.

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