Ramaphosa is rattled

William Saunderson-Meyer says Farmgate has put the President under pressure


The brave face with which the Ramaphosa administration initially met the Farmgate allegations is beginning to show some worry lines. There’s less grin, more grimace.

Waiting for Arthur Fraser — the former State Security Agency head who waited more than two years to lay charges of presidential criminality — to drop the other shoe as promised, is taking its toll. The stress is now showing in a myriad of missteps by Cyril Ramaphosa.

The first major stumble is that he engineered or drifted into what was potentially an enormously damaging conflict with the Office of the Public Protector (PP).

On Wednesday, Acting PP Kholeka Gcaleka announced that she would subpoena Ramaphosa over his failure to respond to allegations of violating the Executive Ethics Code. This followed Ramaphosa’s failure to respond to allegations relating to Farmgate, despite having been given a four-week extension of the initial two-week deadline. However, instead of meeting the new deadline, the president had asked for yet another extension. This was refused by Gcaleka.

A dire standoff — a sitting president failing to co-operate with one of the Chapter Nine institutions set up to protect the Constitution — appears to have been averted. The Presidency’s spokesperson says that Ramaphosa “is in communication with the PP legal team” to find an amicable solution and it is likely that the president will cave and provide the response imminently. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

However, such obvious manoeuvring by Ramaphosa certainly does nothing for his already shrinking public credibility. All that it does is beg the question of why he is adopting the much criticised but effective Stalingrad tactics used by his disgraced predecessor, Jacob Zuma, to avoid legal accountability.

It doesn’t help Ramaphosa that his suspension of PP Busisiwe Mkhwebane, pending the outcome of Parliament’s inquiry into her fitness to hold office, followed within a day of her announcing the Farmgate investigation that Gcaleka has now taken up. Perceptually, if not in reality, there are again uncomfortable echoes of the Zuma era, when attempts were made to muzzle PP Thuli Madonsela when she got the bit between her teeth over Zuma’s illegal activities.

The question that Ramaphosa’s backers would be asking themselves is how difficult could it be for an innocent president to speedily provide a written response to the PP’s 31 questions? Even if only to obfuscate, evade or plead amnesia? 

Ramaphosa has been adamant all along that he will provide no public rebuttal of claims that he hid millions of undeclared US dollars hidden in furniture at his Limpopo game farm, that it was stolen but recovered by an off-the-books police operation that involved torture, and that the thieves were then paid lavishly to remain silent. 

All that Ramaphosa has said is that he has never stolen any state money, that the sum involved was not as large as claimed, and that it came from cash sales of rare game. Oh, and that he didn’t report the theft to the police because he feared it would fuel the farming community’s unfounded fears that they were under threat of rampant criminality.

Given the implausibility of much of Ramaphosa’s explanation so far, one can understand his legal team counselling to zip his mouth. If you’re in a hole, don’t dig.

But a head of state cannot retreat into sullen silence. By dint of his office, Ramaphosa owes the whole country, not only the PP, an explanation beyond saying that he will be silent so as not to be perceived to be interfering with the Hawks’ belated investigation.

This already shaky defence — that of the honourable silence of the outraged innocent — is weakened further by the fact that Ramaphosa said that he would voluntarily meet with the ANC’s integrity commission to brief them on the facts. What would he say to the moral guardians of a terminally corrupt political party that he dare not say to the nation? In any case, two months later, the integrity commission meeting still has not happened.

There is perhaps a dawning realisation in the Ramaphosa war room that earlier assumptions that he could avoid any public reckoning over Farmgate long enough to secure at the December leadership conference the second term that seemed easily within his grasp, may be mistaken. Six months is a long time to duck and dive, which is why he and his Cabinet supporters are behaving like deer frozen in the headlights.

They are on tenterhooks. When Fraser made his Farmgate allegations, the coterie of Radical Economic Transformation supporters that surround him made clear that this was just the first salvo. There was more to come, Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema warned darkly at a press conference.

Before Farmgate, Ramaphosa was known for his calm and measured response to sometimes tumultuous events around him. At times, he seemed so calm as to be comatose, as when the July 2021 riots shook the country.

That’s changed. His legendary savoir-faire has been rattled and in the past fortnight, there have been other odd trip-ups, the kind made by a president who is bewildered and uncertain of what best to do to ensure his survival.

This year the South African economy has been roiled by the worst ever Eskom power crisis. The public is at the end of its tether. On 11 July, Ramaphosa announced that he and his Cabinet had been working on a “bold” solution to the problem and that the details would be announced within days. Nothing has yet happened, except for a presidential “fact-finding” visit to a power station.

Then a few days later, at the SA Communist Party’s conference, Ramaphosa embraced a bizarre proposal by Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe that the government should set up another state-owned electricity entity to compete with Eskom. Two days later, he seemed tangentially to back off the idea. Or maybe not.

Vacillation and uncertainty are good neither for investor nor voter confidence. So far, the only definitive move on the electricity crisis is that Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan has now accepted, with thanks, the offer made by the Solidarity trade union in May, to provide a list of people with the necessary technical skills to address the skills crisis at Eskom.

For the Ramaphosa administration to take help from a white union is a big swallowing of pride. Part of the reason for the crisis is the dismissal of thousands of white engineers since 1994, to meet race quotas A previous offer from Solidarity, made in 2019, was disdainfully ignored.

A week is a long time in politics, the maxim goes. Ramaphosa has to make it through for another six months.

If he is going to make the distance — without looking as guilty, or behaving as deviously, as the criminals he purports to be fighting — he’s going to have to change his tactics.

Many, perhaps most, South Africans were at first willing to give Ramaphosa the benefit of the doubt on the Farmgate allegations. That goodwill is waning, despite the terrifying prospect of the RET grabbing power if he is ousted.

If Ramaphosa is innocent, he has to provide, soon, a frank and credible public explanation of what happened at his Phala Phala farm. If he continues behaving as he has, in terms of his dashed political prospects a court finding of guilt will be unnecessary.

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