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Analysis | The Scandal Embroiling South Africa’s President

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South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has been caught up in a scandal almost five years after he took office with a pledge to fight corruption. The bizarre case revolves around the theft of cash that robbers found stuffed into a sofa at his game farm. A panel headed by the nation’s former chief justice said there may be grounds for impeaching the 70-year-old leader because of the way he handled the matter. The panel’s findings were rejected by parliament and Ramaphosa comfortably won a second term as head of the governing party. But the drama has blotted his distinguished political career and compounded the woes of a country contending with unprecedented power outages, rampant unemployment and surging living costs.

1. What’s Ramaphosa alleged to have done? 

The furor erupted in June, when former chief spy Arthur Fraser laid criminal charges against Ramaphosa, accusing the president of concealing the theft of more than $4 million from the farm in the northern Limpopo province in February 2020. The suspected thieves were also illegally detained and interrogated by presidential security staff, according to the charge sheet. Fraser is a close ally of Jacob Zuma, Ramaphosa’s predecessor and political nemesis, and the source and accuracy of his information remain unclear. The police, the graft ombudsman, tax authorities and the central bank all instituted investigations. Parliament appointed the three-member advisory panel headed by former Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo to determine if lawmakers should consider Ramaphosa’s dismissal. 

2. What did Ngcobo’s panel find? 

While it didn’t explicitly call for the president to be impeached, it found he may be guilty of serious misconduct and should be subjected to a parliamentary investigation. It said Ramaphosa had “thrust himself into a situation where there was a conflict of interest between his official responsibilities as the head of state and as a businessperson.” It also concluded that the source of the stolen foreign currency remained unclear, that the crime wasn’t properly reported to the police, and that there was a “deliberate intention” to ensure it wasn’t openly investigated. No one has been charged in connection with the robbery. 

3. What does Ramaphosa say?

In a 138-page submission to the panel, the president denied violating his presidential oath or breaking the law. He said he sold 20 buffalo to a Sudanese businessman for $580,000 and it was stolen while he was abroad. The farm manager put the cash in a safe, but later transferred it to a sofa in a spare bedroom in the president’s private house because he thought that was the safest place to keep it. The theft was reported to the head of the Presidential Protection Services, according to Ramaphosa. He initially considered quitting, but later backtracked and asked the nation’s top court to set aside the panel’s report on the basis that it overstepped its mandate and based its findings on hearsay. The governing African National Congress’s lawmakers used their parliamentary majority to reject the panel’s findings and the party then elected Ramaphosa as its leader for a second five-year term. That means he’ll be its presidential candidate in national elections in 2024 bar any unforeseen developments. 

The probes by the police and other authorities remain ongoing, and under ANC rules Ramaphosa would be forced to quit if criminal charges are laid against him. The ANC’s integrity committee has also conducted its own investigation into whether the president brought the party into disrepute and could recommend that he step aside, although its top leadership will probably make a final call and they aren’t likely to force him out. 

5. What does this mean for South Africa?

The initial uncertainty around the president’s future unnerved investors and financial markets. The rand tumbled in early December after the release of the panel’s report, but rebounded after parliament rejected the findings. Ramaphosa is one of the country’s most experienced politicians. A former labor union leader who made a fortune after going into business, he helped to negotiate an end to White-minority rule in the early 1990s and led a panel that drafted the country’s first democratic constitution. Since taking office in 2018, he’s made some headway in tackling the graft that became endemic during Zuma’s nine-year rule and spearheaded a drive to attract billions of dollars in foreign investment. 

–With assistance from Paul Vecchiatto and Gordon Bell.

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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