South Africans are waiting, many in deep trepidation, to find out if President Cyril Ramaphosa is about to resign in the wake of a murky and highly politicised scandal involving cattle, a sofa, and the theft of hundreds of thousands (and possibly millions) of dollars.
Much now hangs on a meeting of the leaders of the country’s governing party, the African National Congress (ANC), which is due to convene in the coming days.
Mr Ramaphosa’s most ardent supporters – and he remains a popular leader – frame this moment as an all-or-nothing fight between a decent man, desperately trying to clean up a corruption-ridden country, and the forces of chaos with the ANC who are trying to get rid of him in order to keep hold of their loot and keep themselves out of prison.
One commentator likened the drama to Shakespeare’s Henry V, urging Mr Ramaphosa to “stiffen the sinews” and fight to clear his name.
There’s no doubt that the case against Mr Ramaphosa was – at least to begin with – politically motivated.
A well-known political rival, linked to South Africa’s disgraced former President, Jacob Zuma, dramatically revealed allegations that millions of dollars – hidden in a sofa – had gone missing from Mr Ramaphosa’s high-end Phala Phala game farm, and that there had been a police cover-up.
The president – a wealthy businessman and former liberation struggle icon, once backed by Nelson Mandela to succeed him – loftily declared that he was innocent.
But the story has not gone away, and over time, as fresh details and denials have leaked out, even some of his supporters have acknowledged that the scandal has been poorly handled by Mr Ramaphosa and his aides.
“There are questions that he has not been able to answer… about these huge sums of cash. He’d told us he’d put all these [businesses] in blind trust. I think he was very clumsy and careless… and out of touch,” said Nombonisa Gasa, a political analyst.
So what now?
In the over-heated world of the ANC – a party so long in power that its furious internal feuds now feel more like open-warfare – the campaigning and jockeying are in full swing.
The party is due to select a leader later this month – with Mr Ramaphosa an easy favourite to win. But those calculations are now changing fast.
It’s been widely reported that Mr Ramaphosa has already decided to quit, but is being persuaded by allies to think again, or at least to buy time in order to ensure a smooth transition to someone credible.
His current deputy, and automatic heir, Vice-President David Dabede Mabuza, is not tipped as the right man for that role.
But could anyone in the current ANC leadership – so many tainted, themselves, by allegations of corruption – garner the levels of nationwide popular support that Mr Ramaphosa still enjoys?
And if not, are we watching the slow unravelling of the party that once liberated South Africa from apartheid – and election defeat in 2024?
South Africa’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, is certainly hoping to capitalise on the current crisis, calling for early elections. Some analysts see the ANC’s decline as both inevitable, and good for the country’s young democracy.
“Most South Africans are really concerned about what will happen next. Because there is no-one ready to [replace Mr Ramaphosa]. But this is the beginning of the end for the ANC – and that’s a good thing. The ANC has done its job. It liberated the country. It’s time for something new,” said political analyst Thembisa Fakude.
RELATED: South Africa’s Farmgate scandal: what is it and why does it matter?
Who is in trouble?
Cyril Ramaphosa took power as South Africa’s president in 2018 and led the ruling African National Congress party to a general election victory a year later. He campaigned on an anti-corruption platform, attracting much support after the turbulent nine-year rule of his populist predecessor, Jacob Zuma, who was forced out by a series of scandals. Ramaphosa, 70, has since struggled to push through much-needed reforms and has faced fierce resistance from Zuma loyalists.
A former labour activist once tipped for the presidency of a free South Africa by Nelson Mandela, Ramaphosa earned a fortune as a businessman when he took a break from politics after being passed over in favour of others. He enjoys breeding and raising valuable animals, including cattle. These commercial and personal interests now threaten a premature end to his political career.
Somewhere between $500,000 and $5m was stolen from Ramaphosa’s game ranch at Phala Phala, in Limpopo province, in early 2020. The cash does not appear to have been declared according to strict local money laundering regulations or for tax. Nor was its theft reported to police. Instead, a presidential bodyguard was tasked with tracking down the money and then possibly paying off the culprits. Local media call the scandal Farmgate.
RELATED: Ramaphosa delays parliament appearance over ‘Farmgate’ corruption scandal
South Africa’s political crisis deepens after panel says president should face scrutiny over ability to stay in office
The government of Cyril Ramaphosa has plunged further into crisis, a day after an an independent panel appointed by parliament said there was evidence suggesting the South African president committed “serious misconduct” after millions of dollars in cash were reportedly stolen from his private game ranch almost three years ago.
Ramaphosa was expected to answer questions in South Africa’s parliament on Thursday but postponed his appearance, saying he needed time to consider the panel’s timing. The deputy president, David Mabuza, cancelled a keynote address at a World Aids Day commemoration event, while key spokespeople failed to hold regular briefings.
The South African rand has fallen sharply with fears growing of a protracted period of political instability that will hold back reforms to boost the country’s flagging economy.
Ramaphosa, who came to power in 2018, has been accused of holding undeclared foreign currency, tax evasion, failing to inform police about the robbery and misusing state resources by ordering his presidential guards to track down the culprits who then appear to have been paid off.
- FARMGATE SCANDAL
By: Miss Cherry May Timbol – Independent Reporter