Ramaphosa future hangs in the balance

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Nosmot Gbadamosi, Africa Foreign Policy Brief

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa could be the first African leader to be impeached after an inquiry found evidence of possible “serious misconduct” relating to a baffling “Farmgate” scandal involving a heist, a Sudanese businessman, and a sofa stuffed with cash.

Ramaphosa’s future now hangs in the balance following a scathing report by an independent panel released last Wednesday, which concluded that he may have broken anti-corruption laws over the 2020 theft of $580,000 stored in a sofa at his Phala Phala game farm.

The three-member panel, appointed by the speaker of South Africa’s National Assembly, recommended that Ramaphosa be investigated for possible impeachment and found “substantial doubt about the legitimacy of the source of the currency that was stolen,” prompting talks of resignation. Ramaphosa admitted that the theft took place but said it was payment from selling buffalo to a Sudanese citizen, Mustafa Mohamed Ibrahim Hazim, in late 2019.

Ramaphosa plans to challenge the panel’s findings in court, arguing that the report overstepped its narrow remit and lacked evidence.

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But the panel has questioned why the sold buffalo remain on his ranch more than two years after being sold. Ramaphosa never reported the theft to police, and it only came to light in June, when former spy chief Arthur Fraser—a loyalist of former South African President Jacob Zuma—filed a complaint with police, accusing Ramaphosa of money laundering and graft by privately authorizing for suspects in the burglary to be detained and bribed into silence through the help of Namibian President Hage Geingob.

Ramaphosa has refuted those allegations. “I did not ‘hunt’ for the perpetrators of the theft, as alleged, nor did I give any instructions for this to take place,” he wrote in a submission to the panel’s report. His Namibian counterpart has denied any involvement.

Meanwhile, the South African Reserve Bank is yet to report the findings of its own investigation into whether the money was properly reported as foreign currency. Colleagues in Ramaphosa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) party held an emergency meeting on Monday and agreed to vote against the panel’s Section 89 recommendations. As a result, Ramaphosa’s opponents would be unable to secure a majority. (Section 89 law allows for a president to be removed from office if he or she has committed a serious violation of the constitution.) South Africa’s Parliament postponed its debate of the report until Dec. 13.

Ramaphosa had been widely expected to win a second term in office after receiving the most votes from a list of candidates to front the ANC ahead of the party’s conference scheduled to begin Dec. 16. Only weeks ago, he had been welcomed in London on a state visit filled with royal pomp as the first world leader hosted by King Charles III since he ascended the throne.

When elected unopposed in 2018, after the social fractures from state looting under Zuma, Ramaphosa had vowed to weed out corruption from the ANC’s ranks within an administration that would “not tolerate the plunder of public resources.” Zuma and his associates’ ability to use state institutions to successfully avoid imprisonment over corruption has not helped the ANC; nobody from Zuma’s inner circle has yet gone to jail despite a raft of investigations.

“The damage here is not just to Ramaphosa and his personal campaign. Increasingly people are saying the ANC is incapable of dealing with corruption,” said Dale McKinley, an independent analyst. “This is a longer-term deterioration of legitimacy and trust in the ANC.”

South Africans are skeptical that a competent replacement can be found and fear that those embroiled in Zuma’s state capture from the ANC’s heartlands would seize the opportunity to continue to raid state coffers. Without Ramaphosa, a “group of criminals” would return to power, and South Africa would “become a banana republic,” James Motlatsi, a close ally of the president, warned last week.

“There is quite a substantial constituency not only within the ANC but within the country whose opinion would say, ‘Well, yes, he did these things, he shouldn’t have done them, but he is the best one around,’” McKinley said.

A resolution to remove him as president needs a two-thirds majority from members of Parliament. If Ramaphosa goes, some South Africans fear that chaos might engulf Africa’s most industrialized nation. Markets have responded swiftly with a sharp fall in the South African rand. Without Ramaphosa or a credible replacement, political pundits widely assume that the ANC would lose its majority in elections slated for 2024.

One poll suggests that if he leaves, voter support would drop to below 40 percent. But even with him, analysts such as McKinley predict that votes for the ANC could go below 50 percent, which would fall in line with results from local government elections last year. This could lead to the country being led by a coalition government for the first time in the post-apartheid era.

Whatever the outcome, allegations against Ramaphosa will now taint his political future. “There is a sense that, irrespective of who is in charge, the ANC is not interested in acting against its own,” McKinley said.