South Africa: Will return of crime-busting ‘Scorpions’ boost Ramaphosa’s ratings?

By Carien du Plessis

Posted on Friday, 28 October 2022 14:59
South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa speaks in Pretoria, South Africa, Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa has been making good on his promises to fight graft by announcing measures to strengthen agencies tasked with prosecuting those accused of it.

This week, Ramaphosa announced that an agency set up to prosecute high level corruption cases emanating from the state capture inquiry – the Independent Directorate (ID) – would be made permanent. This step is widely seen as a return of the Scorpions, an investigating and prosecuting body set up under former president Thabo Mbeki to focus on high-level blue-collar crimes, but later scrapped by his successor Kgalema Motlanthe.

However, Ramaphosa is yet to show the full extent of his commitment by announcing action against close allies named in the inquiry’s report.

They include mineral resources and energy minister Gwede Mantashe, who is vying for re-election as party chairperson on Ramaphosa’s ticket, ahead of the party’s elective conference in December.

It would be stupid of the president to grow the ranks of his opponents [by shuffling them out of cabinet] when he faces re-election and he knows that

Deputy minister in the presidency, Zizi Kodwa, and communications minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni are also two allies named in the report. Water and sanitation deputy minister David Mahlobo, who has turned out to be a loyalist since his appointment to Ramaphosa’s executive, is also in the report.

It is not clear whether Ramaphosa will effect a cabinet reshuffle before the party’s December conference, but Business Day reported in August that he told his closest aides such was unlikely.

“It would be stupid of the president to grow the ranks of his opponents [by shuffling them out of cabinet] when he faces re-election and he knows that,” a source told the paper at the time.

Strengthening institutions

Ramaphosa’s address on Sunday night wasn’t watched by about half the country due to simultaneous breakdowns at a number of power stations. It was meant to be part of Ramaphosa’s ‘visibility campaign’ in response to his critics in the party and also as proof to voters that he’s working to counter the after-effects of state capture, which dominated Zuma’s presidency from 2009 to 2018.

“He really believes the fight against corruption is the trump card of his presidency,” says Lukhona Mnguni, head of policy and research at Rivonia Circle. The group is having conversations with citizens who are disillusioned with politicians and it is driving a campaign to see more young people come to the polls and make a change.

Already there have been a number of arrests and charges related to the state capture commission’s report. The latest to be called to account is former Eskom head Matshela Koko, alongside his wife, Mosima, and stepdaughter Koketso Aren, as well as eight more individuals, who appeared in court on Thursday in relation to the syphoning off of millions of rands from the power utility.

Other previous arrests include former mining minister Mosebenze Zwane, former ports and railways agency Transnet CEO Brian Molefe, as well as Rajesh and Atul Gupta, the two brothers alleged to have orchestrated the state capture project under Zuma’s presidency.

As long as the NPA and the ID are not given the necessary capacity and capabilities they need to see through complex prosecutions and transactions, public trust will wane…

A number of institutions, such as the National Prosecuting Authority and the SA Revenue Service, also had to be rebuilt after they were hollowed out under Zuma’s presidency.

During his mid-term budget policy statement this week, Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana announced that “revenue collection has exceeded expectations … largely due to improvements in corporate income tax collections”. This came after a drive to strengthen the revenue authority.

The arrests of high-level corruption suspects have been cited as evidence that the same upswing is happening in the NPA as well.

Mnguni, however, says the authority had been slow to have suspects convicted in court, with some cases dragging on for years. This includes the corruption case of suspended ANC secretary general Ace Magashule, which hasn’t started in earnest, even though he’d been arrested two years ago.

“As long as the NPA and the ID are not given the necessary capacity and capabilities they need to see through complex prosecutions and transactions, public trust will wane to such a degree that it plays into the hands of those who are arrested to say [their arrest] is an abuse of power,” he says.

Criticism by three predecessors

Ramaphosa’s address on Sunday night also came a day after all three of his predecessors sharply and publicly criticised his leadership on separate occasions.

Zuma held a press conference in which he haltingly read from a scripted speech, denouncing Ramaphosa as a “corrupt traitor” for earning money outside of his official work as president. This was in reference to the large amount of dollars stolen from Ramaphosa’s Phala Phala farm in February 2020. Ramaphosa, who claimed to have withdrawn from his business interests after becoming deputy president in 2012, said the money was proceeds from the sale of animals.

Zuma himself was accused of receiving R1m ($55,000) a month from Royal Security, owned by controversial businessman Roy Moodley, in the months after becoming president in 2009. Zuma’s annual salary at the time was about R2m.

He also allegedly failed to declare this money to SARS.

Thabo Mbeki, who was sacked by the Zuma-led ANC in 2008, said the party’s leadership will have to discuss whether Ramaphosa should step aside over the Phala Phala allegations. A parliamentary panel will have to decide whether Ramaphosa should face impeachment proceedings.

Kgalema Motlanthe, who was president in the months after Mbeki was sacked and before Zuma took over, told a forum over the weekend that the country was “at the precipice” under Ramaphosa’s leadership.

The former presidents are all still ex officio members of the ANC’s national executive committee, where they would have access to Ramaphosa if they had wanted to criticise him directly. Such public criticism by three former presidents ahead of the party’s elective conference is unprecedented, Mnguni said.

Ramaphosa’s spokesperson, however, said the problems highlighted by the former presidents came because Ramaphosa “inherited a state crippled [by] corruption, state capture and a stagnant economy”.

Surprisingly, Ramaphosa was defended by the party’s provincial leaders in KwaZulu-Natal and North West, despite them not backing his second term bid. Limpopo and the Eastern Cape, who are backing him, also issued statements saying the criticism from the former presidents was out of place.

Accountability demanded over the dollars

Calls have, however, been growing from various quarters in the ANC as well as from other parties and civil society for Ramaphosa to account for the forex he kept at Phala Phala.

Ramaphosa’s close advisor and chief campaigner for his 2017 presidential bid, Bejani Chauke, has also been under fire. There are signs that Ramaphosa’s camp is trying to distance their campaign from Chauke after he was implicated by former spy chief Arthur Fraser as a key enabler of ferrying the cash to Phala Phala.

The four-month-old letter was leaked this week to that effect.

Chauke, in a response, wrote that this letter was “riddled with untruthful allegations that a specialist like [Fraser] would not have made”. He said he was still waiting for the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigations (the Hawks) to contact him in relation to the allegations.

Chauke admitted that he had used private chartered flights, especially during Covid-19, to jet off in his capacity as Ramaphosa’s envoy, to “meetings with presidents around the world”, some of which were funded by the foreign governments. However, he denied Fraser’s allegations that he had transported foreign currency in and out of the country.

Some of Ramaphosa’s chief organisers of his CR22 campaign have, however, quietly moved to distance the president from any close relations with Chauke. This includes leaving him off the president’s list of top six running mates.

Bejani has always been Ramaphosa’s pointsman in the Free State, where Magashule has his stronghold.

Instead, Ramaphosa’s lobbyists have included the maverick Fikile Mbalula, who has been fairly incapable as a transport minister but still been the ANC’s organiser for years. Mbalula also hails from the Free State and reportedly still has some support there.

It’s unlikely that Ramaphosa’s anti-corruption drive will convince ANC members who are not sympathetic to vote for him in December, because divisions in the party are largely personality-based. Even so, Ramaphosa is likely to benefit significantly from sharp divisions in the opposing camp.

His detractors are split between a group supporting former president Jacob Zuma’s call for his former wife, minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, to be elected president, and another group, represented by the ANC’s leaders in KwaZulu-Natal province, calling for former health minister Zweli Mkhize to oppose Ramaphosa.

A split in the opposition vote is likely to increase Ramaphosa’s already considerable chances of re-election.

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