Ramaphosa’s Anti-Graft Credentials Just Took Another Hit at a Bad Time

Ramaphosa’s Anti-Graft Credentials Just Took Another Hit at a Bad Time
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa looks on during the presentation of the final report of the Zondo Commission, Pretoria, South Africa, June 22, 2022 (AP photo by Themba Hadebe).
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa rose to power five years ago pledging to pursue a policy of “radical economic transformation” and to stamp out corruption in the country’s politics. In his first speech after becoming the leader of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress in 2017, which preceded his accession to South Africa’s presidency the following year, he said that “corruption must be fought with the same intensity and purpose that we fight poverty, unemployment and inequality.” He further vowed to initiate his war on graft within the ANC’s ranks. But after more than four years in office as president of South Africa as well as the ANC, Ramaphosa’s anti-graft credentials have drawn a sizable number of critics. And a new corruption-related scandal dubbed “Farmgate” has created yet another political headache, half a year ahead of the biggest fight of Ramaphosa’s political life: This December, the ANC will host its national conference, which will determine his fate as the party’s president and, effectively, the country’s as well. The scandal centers on a burglary of Ramaphosa’s farm that occurred in 2020 but only became widely known this month. Arthur Fraser, South Africa’s former spy chief who ran the country’s State Security Agency from 2016 to 2018, accused Ramaphosa of kidnapping and bribery linked to the burglary incident. In a statement to law enforcement, Fraser alleged that five men broke into Ramaphosa’s farm in February 2020 to steal more than $4 million. They were then allegedly caught, detained and paid to keep quiet about the incident. Fraser alleged that Ramaphosa never reported the crime to the police, instead relying on his personal protection unit to conduct an unofficial investigation. Ramaphosa’s head of security allegedly assembled a team of serving and retired security officials, who traced the culprits and recovered some of the stolen money. Ramaphosa has since admitted that his farm was indeed burgled but denied any wrongdoing. The controversy nonetheless raises questions about how he came to have such a large sum of cash at his farm; whether he was trying to hide the burglary from the public and why; and the extent to which he might have abused presidential powers in an attempt to do so. South African law enforcement have begun an investigation with which Ramaphosa has pledged to cooperate, though he has sidestepped calls for more clarity about the incident with vague references to a “due process.” He has also continued to be evasive about the ANC’s “step-aside” rule—in which any party member who is a suspect in a criminal investigation must vacate state and party offices—by arguing that his “stepping aside” would give the appearance of an interference with the criminal investigation. The Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s main opposition party, has called for a parliamentary probe into the scandal, while also calling for the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation to investigate the possibility of money laundering. The revelations emerged at a pivotal period in Ramaphosa’s presidency, as well as in South African politics more broadly. Almost four years after it began, the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, better known as the Zondo Commission, has just completed its investigation into graft implicating the highest echelons of the country’s government and business sector. In six reports, the commission set out damning allegations against Jacob Zuma, Ramaphosa’s immediate predecessor as ANC and South African president, and his cronies. South Africa’s Chief Justice Raymond Zondo handed the final report to Ramaphosa last week. Zuma features prominently in it, with the commission collecting evidence from hundreds of witnesses and thousands of documents about graft during his near-decade in power.

On the eve of the battle to save his presidency, Ramaphosa could face the prospect of legal jeopardy over the Farmgate scandal, as well as political uncertainty.

But the report finds fault with Ramaphosa as well, accusing him and other top ANC officials of doing little to respond to the widespread corruption in party and state affairs. Their indifference, according to the report, allowed a culture of impunity to take root in South African politics. Crucially, Fraser, a close ally of Zuma who was regarded as one of the most powerful officials during his administration, is also named in the commission’s report. Fraser faces allegations of corruption stemming from an investigation into his tenure as head of the SSA, during which he is alleged to have misappropriated millions of dollars and authorized unlawful surveillance operations. Many allies of Ramaphosa, who pushed Zuma from power under a cloud of disgrace, argue that Fraser’s allegations are now part of a plan by Zuma’s allies to discredit Ramaphosa and weaken him ahead of his bid for reelection as ANC leader. Whatever Fraser’s motivations, Farmgate is certain to have widespread ramifications. The ANC’s longstanding position as South Africa’s political leviathan has come into question in recent years, and it faces an increasingly treacherous electoral terrain following humbling losses in last year’s local elections. The party has lost ground with South African voters in recent years, and even though it rode the wave of Ramaphosa’s popularity to victory in the 2019 general elections, its 57 percent of the vote represented its lowest share since South Africa’s post-Apartheid transition to democracy in 1994. More importantly, the scandal has put a dent in Ramaphosa’s anti-graft credentials, and his decision to suspend South Africa’s graft ombudsman did little to help restore that credibility. On the eve of the battle to save his presidency, Ramaphosa could face the prospect of legal jeopardy as well as political uncertainty. Before Farmgate, he was seen as likely, if not quite certain, to be reelected to another term as the ANC’s president. His main rivals for the position were seen as politically wounded, if still formidable. His allies control the party’s national executive committee, while the party structures in the country’s provinces were broadly seen as likely to back Ramaphosa’s bid for a second term. But the scandal could easily change the political calculus among the ANC faithful. The ANC’s party chapter in Gauteng—the most populous province and the country’s economic nerve center, where Johannesburg is located—just elected new leaders after a drawn-out provincial conference. The party chapter in KwaZulu-Natal province, the second-most populous of South Africa’s nine provinces and a stronghold of Zuma’s faction, is set to hold its elective conference in July. Given Zuma’s continued popularity there, the results in the two provinces are expected to foreshadow the dynamics likely to determine the party’s national conference this December. But all of those considerations could easily become moot if Ramaphosa is charged with a crime. In that event, the pressure for him to resign will almost certainly intensify, and he will find it untenable to hang on to leadership of the party, to say nothing of South Africa’s presidency. In such a scenario, should Ramaphosa defy calls to honor the “step aside” rule, it would almost certainly cause nationwide outrage and perhaps even another uprising much like last year’s, triggered by Zuma’s arrest for refusing to cooperate with the Zondo Commission. In the long term, Ramaphosa’s defiance would damage institutional norms in the ANC as well as in the national government, deepening the culture of impunity that the Zondo Commission identified and that Ramaphosa pledged to eradicate. For the time being, Ramaphosa’s allies in the party’s leadership are circling the wagons against their internal factional rivals, as well as the opposition and civil society groups calling for more transparency and accountability. But even if Ramaphosa and his allies can stave off this controversy until after December, they may not be so fortunate in 2024, when the country will hold its next general elections. Amid an electoral landscape where there are serious doubts about the party’s ability to win an outright national majority, the ANC will have no shortage of tough decisions to make in the coming months.

Chris O. Ogunmodede is an associate editor with World Politics Review. His coverage of African politics, international relations and security has appeared in War on The Rocks, Mail & Guardian, The Republic, Africa is a Country and other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @Illustrious_Cee.

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