Ramaphosa is a dead man walking

William Saunderson-Meyer says the President is on his way out whether he resigns now, or goes in 2024


“Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it.”

Those are the words of one of William Shakespeare’s Scottish noblemen upon the death of the rebel Thane of Cawdor, whose title is given to Macbeth, spurring his ambition to become king. 

The eponymous play is 400 years old next year. It has remained a Politics 101 primer through the ages, with its depiction of unbridled ambition, dastardly deeds to achieve the highest office, and how optimistic expectations are often dashed.

Depending on how you read it, the Bard may be saying that the Thane, having confessed his treason, exited with dignity. Alternatively, that his rule was futile, with the ending its high point. The words as easily describes Macbeth’s reign which followed a similar dismal and despised trajectory. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

And so, too, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s imminent exit from political life. For Ramaphosa is already a dead man walking, whether he resigns this week, is ousted by his party in a fortnight, impeached by Parliament next year, or doggedly hangs on until the 2024 general election. 

The last scenario is the least likely. The odds are good that he will be the third African National Congress president in a row not to finish his term of office, departing under a cloud.

How different it could have been. After the trauma of the Zuma years, Ramaphosa was embraced by much of the public and most commentators for his most obvious quality: that of clearly being a decent human being. 

After a decade of state looting and brazenly corrupt governance, many were willing to take Ramaphosa at his word. He would root out corruption, punish his criminal comrades, and remedy the dysfunction that existed in every sphere of state authority. 

He did nothing of sort. For all the stores of goodwill that were his to draw on, as well as his frequently proclaimed fine intentions, he has been a great disappointment. Even among his staunchest supporters, virtually the only argument proffered in defence of Ramaphosa is that his replacement is likely to be far, far worse. 

They’re almost guaranteed to be correct.

At worst, the so-called Radical Economic Transformation forces, a scurvy collection of thieves and scumbags — driven not by social justice as the name might suggest, but the desire for one final turn at stripping the pantry — will take power. At best, there will be some pallid clone of Ramaphosa, mouthing the same bland assurances but tolerant of corruption, albeit reduced and less blatant. 

In the swirl of speculation of what happens next to Ramaphosa, it is important not to lose sight of the seriousness of his possible transgressions. So grim is the likely path ahead for South Africa, that from the moment that the Farmgate story broke there has been a desperation to dismiss his accusers as malevolent political rivals and the allegations as trivial.

Ramaphosa’s supporters argue that he is about to be brought down for what on the face of it is an inconsequential technicality — not reporting the theft three years ago of some R8m of his own money from the sale of his own buffalo on his own Phala Phala game farm. The pettiness is especially obvious when juxtaposed with the fact that the RET faction behind the revelations looted a vastly greater amount with apparent impunity. 

However, the report of the Section 89 Independent Panel, appointed by Parliament and headed by former Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo, puts a different complexion on the matter. Despite being scrupulously careful to give the president the benefit of any doubt and according his office every respect, the Panel’s report is deeply damaging to Ramaphosa.

The Panel acknowledged, at the outset, that there was a line between presidential misconduct that amounts to impeachable behaviour and that which is “tolerable” and where that line would to be drawn depended on whether the president acted in bad faith. The Panel said it was fundamental to its role “to ensure that the President is not required to undergo a full-scale impeachment enquiry in circumstances where [he] has no case to answer”.

A parliamentary impeachment inquiry is a “step that must never be taken lightly”. “It is a momentous act, justified only when sufficient evidence exists to show that the President has a case to answer for his conduct.” 

Ultimately, the Panel concluded that not only is there prima facie evidence of “serious violations” of the Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Activities Act and the Constitution of the Republic but suggested that, in effect, the president is lying. Their findings boil down to a recommendation that Ramaphosa face a hearing in Parliament that could lead to his removal if two-thirds of MPs vote against him.

It is indeed a great pity that media analysis of the detail of the Panel’s report has been scant. It has been overtaken by feverish conjecture over what Ramaphosa will do next. The Panel’s word-by-word interrogation of Ramaphosa’s explanations is devastating to those who seek to portray the president as somehow being, at worst, a bumbling innocent who was unaware of the dire implications that the actions of others could have on his political future.

The Panel questions the origin of the US dollars stolen, the sum involved, as well as Ramaphosa’s explanation of the transaction underlying it. It describes Ramaphosa’s accounts at times as being “vague” and “leaving unsettling gaps”. 

The Panel writes that “there are troubling unsatisfactory features in the explanation of the source of the foreign currency given by the President … [and] weighty considerations which leave us in substantial doubt as to whether the stolen foreign currency is the proceeds of a sale.”

In light of the Panel’s shredding of Ramaphosa's explanation of what happened at Phala Phala, it is difficult to imagine a proud and weary president submitting himself to the humiliation of the same process being replicated in Parliament, before the entire nation. There also lies ahead the hurdle of possible criminal charges, since the allegations are under separate investigations by the Hawks, the Reserve Bank, the Revenue Services, the Financial Intelligence Centre, the Department of Home Affairs, and the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance.

This is not the first time that Ramaphosa has been fingered for likely fibbing. The report by Justice Ray Zondo’s Commission of Inquiry into State Capture was highly sceptical of the president’s claims that there were no records of the cadre deployment committee that Ramaphosa had chaired for five years during the Zuma presidency.  Zondo said it was “improbable” that there were no records. “It is difficult to conceive how the party would have had any oversight over the Committee without any records.” 

Two judicial investigations, two damning reports. The sad truth of the Ramaphosa years is that he rashly promised to bring to justice the looters and plunderers of the previous administration. Instead, he ensnared only himself.

One question remains. What is the real story behind Phala Phala millions? 

Columnist Jonny Steinberg flighted as credible an explanation as any, as to why a billionaire president might be dabbling in murky money. He suggests that the funds were part of Ramaphosa’s war chest to contest the ANC’s December leadership election.

Steinberg points out that when Ramaphosa ran against Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in 2018, both campaigns spent vast amounts of money, not only on the mechanics of campaigning, but allegedly on bribing delegates. It was hugely embarrassing to Ramaphosa when the RET obtained a list of his donors and it was revealed that the lion’s share of his funds came from the corporate sector, bolstering the smears that he is the kept creature of White Monopoly Capital.

“And so, as the ANC’s 2022 elective conference loomed, the same problem arose once more,” writes Steinberg. “Where to get money? A lot of it. And how to get it in ways that were not extremely damaging?”

If that's true, Ramaphosa made a misjudgment of epic, Macbeth-like, proportions. Time to exit, stage left.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye

The Panel’s report can be found here.