It has been a busy week for Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa’s affable president. He has called on his 60 million countrymen to remember the legacy of Nelson Mandela, spoken to an investment forum held in the “richest square mile in Africa”, and led generous tributes to a senior official from the ruling African National Congress.
None of this will have stretched the veteran politician, who was jailed by South Africa’s apartheid regime and was once seen as Mandela’s heir. But one small news item might: Ramaphosa was threatened last week with a subpoena by a public watchdog probing a scandal that could pose a serious threat to his presidency.
“He’s been pushed into a corner. This is a grenade thrown into his political career,” said Ralph Mathekga, a South African political analyst and author.
The astonishing details of what local media have called “Farmgate” have leaked over months, embroiling the president in a plot that might be lifted directly from one of the gripping and gritty TV crime series popular in the country.
The story begins with a criminal complaint lodged by a disaffected former head of South Africa’s intelligence service at a Johannesburg police station detailing the theft two years ago of $4m in cash from a game and cattle farm owned by Ramaphosa in Limpopo province, two hours’ drive north of his residence in the Union Buildings in Pretoria, the administrative capital.
The disclosure of the hoarding of a huge sum of foreign currency on the president’s ranch was only the beginning. For reasons no one can explain, the cash was hidden in sofas. Instead of reporting the theft to the police, officers from the presidential protection force were allegedly dispatched to track down the missing money.
Having followed the trail to various parts of South Africa and neighbouring Namibia, the president’s men found and interrogated the thieves, but then are alleged to have paid them to keep quiet. A domestic worker at the farm is also reported to have received money in return for silence.
So far Ramaphosa has admitted the theft took place, but said the money was the legitimate takings from an auction of prized cattle and that he has done nothing wrong. After missing several deadlines and the threat of a subpoena, he answered 31 questions posed by the constitutionally mandated Office of the Public Protector on Friday.
“It wasn’t a case of the president taking long to answer the questions, it was just a case of he had a very packed schedule where he had a number of priorities to attend to. Unfortunately, we could not attend to this one in time,” a spokesperson told reporters.
Game farming is big business in South Africa, and can generate large revenues. But trade experts say it is rare for anyone to keep cash for fear of attracting violent robbers. Others suggest the money was to be distributed among ANC cadres to win support – an illegal but common practice.
Supporters of the president say he is the victim of a smear campaign before a likely brutal contest to win a second term as president of the ANC in December at a party conference. This would set up Ramaphosa to win a second term as president of South Africa at elections in 2024. As the incumbent, and one of the few ANC politicians with popular appeal, he is the favourite.
But the damage done by the Farmgate scandal is considerable. Ramaphosa was elected with a mandate to repair the deep damage done to South Africa’s institutions and economy by Jacob Zuma, whose nine-year rule ended amid allegations of systematic corruption and mismanagement in 2018. This means taking on enemies who are legion and unscrupulous.
Ramaphosa’s ability to do this is seriously undermined by any suspicion that he has committed potentially serious breaches of the law and official codes of conduct. These could include non-disclosure of a crime, misuse of public funds, money laundering, tax evasion and more.
Judith February, director of Freedom Under Law, an NGO working to uphold democratic values and the rule of law in South Africa, said that so far only one side of the Farmgate story has been heard – but that this was a problem in itself.
Though he ignored the Public Protector for weeks, Ramaphosa was willing to appear before ANC officials to explain himself.
“It’s very difficult to tell what he has done wrong. He seems keener to appease the party than be transparent with the people. So it looks like an amateurish cover-up … and that has serious consequences for the integrity of our institutions,” February said.
The scandal comes at a bad time for Ramaphosa. With soaring unemployment, a collapsing infrastructure and anaemic growth, even supporters admit his first term has been disappointing. Covid, floods and the Ukraine war have not helped, nor has fierce resistance by Zuma loyalists, who instigated such unrest last year that Ramaphosa called it an “insurrection”.
The Farmgate scandal has fuelled a broader disenchantment with the ANC and a political system that has allowed the party 28 years in power.
Ramaphosa’s tendency to avoid conflict and seek consensus, seen as a great strength when he was a more junior politician, may now be a weakness. A judicial inquiry into corruption under Zuma recently criticised Ramaphosa for not acting against graft or speaking up when deputy president from 2014 to 2018.
“In the South African political system, the ability to build complex coalitions is key to winning top positions and Ramaphosa is very good at this,” said Anthony Butler, a professor of political studies at the University of Cape Town and biographer of the president. “But the crisis that South Africa is in at the moment doesn’t need coalitions, it needs decisions. Simply saying the right things to different audiences just gives people the sense that [Ramaphosa] can’t chart a way forward.”
Rolling nationwide power cuts of up to 12 hours daily since mid-July and a spate of murderous shootings in pubs have reinforced a sense that the president is ineffectual or even inadequate.
In Diepsloot, a poor township outside Johannesburg, where tens of thousands live packed into tin houses or cramped one-room cement homes, there were mixed feelings. Few have seen much improvement in their lives in recent years, and many say they are worse off.
Charity Modise voted for Ramaphosa in 2018 and said she still believed the president was honest.
“He is a good and godly man. But he hasn’t done anything for us. Maybe he is too careful of his friends and his businesses,” she said, as she carried a bag of home-cooked deep-fried rolls to a taxi rank to sell.
There were similar sentiments in Nomzamo near Soweto, where the most deadly of the recent pub shootings took place. Fifteen drinkers were shot dead on a Saturday night by suspected gang members, prompting calls for greater regulation and better policing in a country awash with firearms.
“It’s just getting worse. Life is too hard. We don’t have electricity. It’s very crowded. Maybe 15% of people here have jobs. No one really is working,” said Thabiso Letlojane, 31.
Gladys Nkona, 42, blamed the ANC. “The government does nothing. They don’t care about poor people. For them it’s just about filling their own pockets,” she said.
The president has never hidden his wealth, estimated at as much as $700m, and has dismissed criticism as racist and hypocritical. But his fortune, acquired during a decade away from politics after being passed over as successor when Mandela stepped down as president in 1999, has sometimes proved a weakness. Ten years ago police shot dead 34 striking miners from a company in which he was involved.
Ramaphosa’s enthusiasm for breeding high-value animals, including Ankole cattle, has also drawn criticism. In 2012 he apologised for bidding more than $1m for an Ankole buffalo and calf at an auction in a country where millions live in deep poverty, but has otherwise rejected criticism of his business success as “crass and racist”.
Ten days ago, Ramaphosa promised an announcement of reforms to end the power crisis but none has been forthcoming, raising suspicions that he has been unable to convince senior ANC officials that the party’s deep political and economic involvement in the coal industry should be at least trimmed.
“There doesn’t seem to be any urgency because it’s the constituents within the party that he’s trying to get on board and there are people who are now holding [the Farmgate scandal] over his head,” said February.
The ANC has already lost power in many cities and in the Western Cape province. In local elections last year, the ruling party’s share of the vote fell to 46%, though it usually does better in national polls.
Many analysts predict the party will lose its majority at the coming general election or by 2029, whether or not Ramaphosa succeeds in pushing through reforms that might boost economic growth or simply restore reliable power supplies. This would open a new era of coalition politics, with a radical and populist leftwing party the most obvious partner for the ANC.
After a chaotic debate last month, Ramaphosa told parliamentarians that Farmgate was under investigation and that “the law must be able to take its course”.
“Some of the views [expressed] have been to counsel me, and yet others have been laced with insults. I will not respond to insults, but will say that the … suggestions that have been made raise points that I will consider.”
The president then fended off questions about the robbery at a press conference. When it ended, he turned to an aide and asked: “Can I go home now?”
July 24, 2022 at 02:08PM Jason Burke in Johannesburg