South Africa: Ramaphosa’s foes use his anti-graft rules to derail second-term bid

By Carien du Plessis

Posted on Thursday, 17 November 2022 16:23
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa arrives to plant a ceremonial tree at the Taman Hutan Raya Ngurah Rai Mangrove Forest, on the sidelines of the G20 summit meeting, Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022, in Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia. Alex Brandon/Pool via REUTERS

The road to victory for Cyril Ramaphosa’s second presidential term at the ruling ANC’s elective conference next month is getting more tortuous by the day.

At the centre of Ramaphosa’s problems are the rules he promoted within the party to stamp out corruption. They were central to his plan to reform the ANC and its political culture after a decade of state capture and cases of grand corruption under his predecessor, Jacob Zuma.

One of the most far-reaching measures the party introduced was the “step aside” rule, which stipulated that any ANC officeholder facing credible accusations of misconduct and malfeasance should be suspended from their office until the matter was resolved.

Some of the party’s most senior figures, such as former Secretary General Ace Magashule, who is being prosecuted for procurement corruption, had to step aside.

Former Health Minister Zweli Mkhize, one of Ramaphosa’s closest competitors in the presidential election, could be snagged by the same rule due to an investigation into procurement malpractice by a company called Digital Vibes.

Prepare yourself for fireworks, you might have an acting president this weekend

In July, accusations emerged from Arthur Fraser, an ally of Zuma’s, that a band of thieves had stolen some $4m in cash from Ramaphosa’s Phala Phala game farm and that the affair had been covered up, partly due to embarrassment about the volume of money.

Fraser said the cash had been stuffed into sofas and that keeping such vast amounts of US dollars contravened the Foreign Exchange Act. Ramaphosa has rejected all claims of malfeasance, indicating he will formally explain the circumstances behind what has come to be known as the ‘Farmgate’ scandal.

The accusations are being investigated by the police directorate for priority crimes, the Hawks, by the South African Reserve Bank (in case of exchange control violations), ANC’s own Integrity Commission, the acting Public Protector and an independent parliamentary panel headed by retired Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo, which could recommend impeachment.

An indictment from any of these agencies could weaken, if not derail, Ramaphosa’s bid for a second term. For now, however, he is still the frontrunner in the election.

Facing the criticism

Over the weekend, Ramaphosa shored up his support at the ANC’s first in-person national executive committee (NEC) meeting in almost three years.

During the Covid-19 lockdown, which started at the end of March 2020, Ramaphosa struggled to gauge his support on the 80-person committee, as most meetings happened on Zoom.

His detractors had wanted to use the weekend meeting to bolster opposition against Ramaphosa, arguing that he should deal with Farmgate and step down ahead of the ANC’s elective conference.

This would have given Ramaphosa an open run for the presidency, but with his strong support from the party’s branches, Ramaphosa was able to fend off that campaign.

“Prepare yourself for fireworks, you might have an acting president this weekend,” one of his detractors told The Africa Report at the start of the meeting on Friday.

There are only two horses in this race, so even if we are behind, it doesn’t mean a lot to us…

Insiders say Ramaphosa was heavily criticised at the meeting, even by some of his ministers, after the cash at the Phala Phala game farm was discussed. His rivals for the top job were the most fervent critics.

Ramaphosa told the meeting that the amount stolen from his farm was $580,000, contrary to Fraser’s claim that it was more than $4m.

Under fire from his ministers

According to weekend media reports, Rampahosa faced questions from senior NEC members, such as local government minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, who is also a presidential contender.

She questioned why the forex wasn’t banked, but stashed in sofa cushions. Ramaphosa defended himself saying he had asked staff members to take care of the cash, which according to him was payment by a Sudanese businessman from Dubai, Hazim Mustafa, for a game. Ramaphosa said the staff seemed to believe the cash would be safer on the sofa than in the safe.

Tourism minister Lindiwe Sisulu, yet another presidential contender, has lambasted Ramaphosa in media interviews, accusing him of firing her as international relations minister after she complied with an ANC resolution to downgrade South Africa’s Israel embassy to a liaison office. She didn’t provide evidence of her claim and Ramaphosa’s allies also denied her allegation.

Minority opposition

Despite the current situation, Ramaphosa’s allies say that less than a quarter of NEC members oppose him. The extent of his support amongst branch members could be revealed when the audit of nominations received from branches is made public by the party’s electoral commission. Campaigners for Mkhize concede that Ramaphosa is the frontrunner.

“There are only two horses in this race, so even if we are behind, it doesn’t mean a lot to us because the numbers that would have gone to other unsuccessful candidates are going to collapse back to us [come next month’s conference],” one of Mkhize’s campaigners said.

He claims that although the power of incumbency favours Ramaphosa for now – this support could tip towards Mkhize in the next few weeks should Ramaphosa be tripped up by Farmgate.

Integrity hurdles

Both Ramaphosa and Mkhize are facing obstacles and are to be held accountable to the new rules of the anti-corruption ticket under which Ramaphosa was elected ANC president in 2017.

Thus far, there has been no evidence of criminal wrongdoing on Ramaphosa’s part, but the parliamentary panel could still make a finding of unethical behaviour that, if backed by the National Assembly, could lead to impeachment proceedings.

Should there be a criminal charge against Ramaphosa, he could be forced to step aside from his ANC position. The party’s electoral commission, headed by former president Kgalema Motlanthe, could also disqualify him from running at the elective conference.

The same could apply to Mkhize, who has faced several probes for the R150m (about $8.7m as of November) Covid-19 communications contract that went to a company run by a close associate and family friend.

Supporters of party treasurer Paul Mashatile argue this gives him a chance to become the party’s next president. He is currently running for deputy president and is building support in a fragmented race.

His supporters have been trying to push him to challenge Ramaphosa head-on; others say he knows he is unlikely to win a one-on-one contest.

Challenging the rules

Mkhize’s supporters say they will challenge the rules at the elective conference should he be forced to step aside. If they are joined by Ramaphosa’s supporters, the rules are likely to be overturned.

This conference is a turning point for the ANC. It is a make or break, that’s the thing.

In the ANC’s constitution, a national conference – usually attended by around 4000 branch delegates – is seen as the party’s highest decision-making structure. The step-aside rule as well as the electoral commission’s regulations are new and have never been subjected to national conference scrutiny.

Analysts pointed to cases where the electoral commission’s rules conflict with the party’s constitution: this means the outcome of the electoral conference could be challenged in court.

Make-or-break for the ANC

Within the party, there is a sense of urgency around this conference, which Mashatile said will be a “watershed” for the party. It “comes at a time when the country and movement face severe challenges, in a global time of uncertainty”, he told journalists on Monday, following the NEC meeting. “The achievements of democracy are under strain, and ANC electoral support has declined.”

He said it was important for the ANC to “revitalise itself to intensify the pursuit of a united, non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous society”.

Rebone Tau, a political analyst who is running for an NEC position, tells The Africa Report that the conference outcome is particularly unpredictable this year because of the disruption caused by the Covid-19 lockdown.

The delegates for the party’s policy conference, usually held six months before the elective conference, were hand-selected by the party’s leadership, instead of being elected by their branches.

“Normally you get the mood of the party at the policy conference, but this was one of the most quiet conferences,” she says, adding that there was little lobbying for proxy policy positions and trade-offs between factions, which happens during fierce contests.

Conferences are often more about the right headcount for candidates than about morals and principles, commented Tau.

“This conference is a turning point for the ANC. It is a make or break, that’s the thing. The quality of leaders that will be elected in the NEC will give us a sense if the ANC is going in the right direction, or if things will get worse.”

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options