Will he stay, or will he go?

Jeremy Gordin writes on Ramaphosa's position post the independent panel's Phala Phala report

By way of cleansing my mental palate this morning, I was reading bits and pieces written by one of the great rabbis of my life, the great Samuel (Shmuel) Johnson.

On Easter Eve, 1777, seven years before he died aged 75, Johnson was not feeling so lekker. He suffered all his life from inter alia what we would call depression. “When I survey my past life,” he wrote that very evening, “I discover nothing but a barren waste of time” and he also commented on feeling “unsettled and perplexed”.

Nonetheless, he agreed to write what he thought of as a potboiler – mainly because he needed the latkes (“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money”). This was Lives of the English Poets, completed by Easter Eve 1781, and later acclaimed as one of the jewels of English literature.

I’ll get back to Dr J. In the meantime, I happened to note that in Johnson’s chapter on John Milton, Johnson repeats an anecdote about the author of Paradise Lost. This took place after the Stuart Restoration when Milton had fallen on hard and impoverished days.

Apparently, Milton had been offered a “continuation” of his former employment (essentially as a civil servant) and was pressed by his third wife, Elizabeth Minshull, to accept the offer [i]. “You, like other women,” retorted Milton, “want to ride in your coach; my wish is to live and die an honest man”.

Now then, unless you live under a bridge, perhaps even if you do, you will know that today the people of Seffrica are beaucoup, beaucoup exercised by the findings of a report made by an independent panel that conducted “a preliminary enquiry on the motion proposing a section 89 inquiry” – i.e., a panel that examined whether there exist prima facie grounds for parliament to debate, discuss and vote on the impeachment of President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Much to everyone’s surprise, including even the DA’s John Steenhuisen (“O ye of little faith”), the so-called Section 89 panel, chaired by retired chief justice Sandile Ngcobo, has recommended – or cleared the way for – impeachment proceedings against Ramaphosa for prima facie (“on the surface of things”) having been involved in paid work outside his official duties, exposing himself to a conflict of interest, and contravening the Prevention of Corrupt Activities Act.

In other words, Ramaphosa has prima facie broken the law, not to mention breaching his constitutional oath – and what’s more, he seems to have been a little, er, equivocatory (shall we say?) in telling his version of events.

And, in a wonderful irony, it looks as though Ramaphosa, Mr Clean, is in breach of anti-corruption legislation. Even if he’s not, his enemies will scream that he is and do their best to eject him and get rid of his (alleged and) annoying clean-up project.

In yet other words, it looks as though it might not be at the top of Ramaphosa’s wish list to live and die as an honest man. This is a pity – for this country’s people (and also, I suppose, for Ramaphosa [ii]).

But probably Ramaphosa doesn’t care too much about the kingdom of heaven (“No man but a blockhead ever went into politics, except for more money and power”) so let’s get back to the narrative.

Lest you don’t know or have forgotten, the Section 89 panel was appointed following the “discovery” that a great deal of money – $580,000.00, which, as of 25 December 2019, would have been about R8,777,458.00 [iii] – had been “stored” in a couch on Ramaphosa’s Phala Phala game farm near Bela-Bela, Limpopo.

Some staff members seem to have noticed an untoward bulge in the sofa and much or part of the money (it’s unclear precisely how much) was stolen on 9 February 2020 – and the rest, as they say, is history.

Or rather, it wasn’t “history” – until on 1 June 2022, the former head of the State Security Agency, Arthur Fraser, lodged a criminal complaint against Ramaphosa for defeating the ends of justice by committing breaches of the Prevention of Organised Crime Act and the Prevention of Corrupt Activities Act of 2004.

Fraser's complaint stated that a total of US$ 4 million (equivalent to R62 million) had been stashed inside a couch at Phala Phala (Fraser’s numbers seem to have been a bit off), that the president did not report the crime, and that the existence of such a large amount of foreign currency was not declared to the Reserve bank despite regulations.

Fraser’s criminal complaint was not very sporting, especially given that he is a member, like Ramaphosa, of the ANC, an organisation that has always prided itself on keeping its dirty washing or biganyana skeletons well hidden from public view.

But it seems Fraser was (maybe still is) deeply attached to the Zuma clan (chacun à son goût) and moreover did not like having been demoted from being chief spook [iv] to being prisons boss – though, be fair, you have to admire the fellow’s chutzpah because, as head honcho of prisons, he made certain former president Jacob Zuma was given medical parole [v].

Ramaphosa has momentarily retreated to his bunker – if I were he, I’d start speaking clearly (but quietly) to his new china, King Charles III, about political asylum – and thus cancelled his scheduled appearance at the NCOP today. On the other hand, though, it is claimed Ramaphosa might address the nation tonight. And the ANC has scheduled an NEC meeting for tomorrow, though there’s the usual confusion about whether tomorrow is today or Friday.

Everyone is jumping up and down. Steenhuisen has said “the events of the past 24 hours, with the hand-over of the independent panel’s report into the Phala Phala allegations, represent a seismic shift in South African politics”.

The Twittersphere is going wild. Will Ramaphosa resign? Will he be recalled – that lovely ANC word for “be fired”? If so, who will replace him? Well, good ol’ DD “the cat” Mabuza, if he’s not busy at his dacha in Russia, is next up (as they say) – a possibility that scares the proverbial bejesus out of many.

So maybe there’ll be (rumours have it) an interim president – such as Kgalema Motlanthe, who’s filled in before. One Twitter person even suggested justice minister Ronald Lamola should be called in. The rank stupidity of the Twitterati never fails to amaze even me.

But what really scares many (including Steenhuisen and me) is that this could be the moment when the so-called RET (Radical Economic Transformation) faction embeds its claws – or, if not now, then next month at the ANC’s elective conference.

Imagine if ANC delegates at the conference suddenly carry aloft Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma? Imagine if Lindiwe Sisulu sweeps into some sort of powerful position? [vi]

As Steenhuisen put it this morning: “What many thought of as a barrier between themselves and the dangerous RET faction of the ANC, along with all its allies and proxies, has seemingly vanished overnight. Many South Africans chose what they thought was the ANC of Cyril Ramaphosa precisely because they felt they had to keep the other ANC out.”

Let’s not, however, grow too excited. Let us rather, albeit sadly, consider some realities.

The “process” dealing with the panel’s findings will probably have to wait until 2023 because the National Assembly (NA) goes into recess from December 7 even though a special sitting to debate the panel’s findings is set for Tuesday the 6th.

Bear in mind too that the recommendations made by the panel are not final and binding on the NA and the ANC could block the report’s adoption.

If the NA does decide to proceed with an impeachment inquiry – which requires 50% plus one in the NA for it to go through – the NA must then establish an impeachment committee – i.e., a panel of so-called lawmakers will be established to investigate the president’s conduct, and it’d probably take months or years to complete its work.

Finally, any decision on impeachment by the NA will require a two-thirds majority.

In short, I’m sure the ANC will block adoption of the panel’s report and in any case will not allow an impeachment to be instituted. This is no time for the ANC to get weak at the knees – I have little doubt that it’ll close ranks. Everyone in it has too much (especially money and favours) riding on remaining in power.

I also don’t believe Ramaphosa will quit – his backers won’t allow him to do so. They too have too much riding on him staying in power. Maybe a literate friend will remind him of Macbeth: “I am in blood / Stepped in so far, that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er”.

And I also think he’ll still win the vote at next month’s conference. Yet again, the ANC will close ranks and keep the weird sisters away from the main pot.

What about a big push in the next few weeks to have Ramaphosa “recalled”? Could the party decide to sanction Ramaphosa or even call on him to step down in the interim? Don’t hold your breath. The so-called RET forces are too disarrayed and disparate – in my ignorant view, anyway.

So, much as I hate it when facts spoil a story, much as I love political ructions and seeing the political roads adorned with roadkill, and notwithstanding all the fun of the last 24 hours or so, I fear that, in a few weeks’ or months’ time, when we look back, we shall discover, like Johnson, nothing but a barren waste of time and feeling and that we’ll feel even more unsettled and perplexed than now.

Remember that, even though it did happen to Thabo Mbeki, and even though he probably had more ANC supporters than Ramaphosa, it’s probably easier for a sitting ANC president to get bitten by a rabid donkey or for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for that president to be toppled – especially at a time when so many depend on him and those around him for patronage.

It has also always amazed me over the years just how poep-scared party members and functionaries are of the person they’ve supposedly voted into power.

On the other hand, however, I have occasionally been known to be wrong. So maybe, just maybe, these days will prove to be truly “seismic,” and pigs will fly (away).


[i] Milton, it seems, was one of the original male chauvinists pigs (MCPs); he clearly held a low opinion of women. I suppose therefore it’s a good thing that he lived some 350 years ago – a publishing house today wouldn’t have been allowed to put out Paradise Lost.

Btw, according to Johnson – for those interested in such unimportant matters – “all [of Milton’s] wives were virgins [when they married Milton, obviously]” – “for [Milton] declared that he thought it gross and indelicate to be a second husband”.

“Upon what other principles his choice [of a wife] was made,” continues the good Dr J, ever the careful journalist, “cannot now be known ...”

[ii] I’ve suddenly recalled a story about Jesus from the gospel of Matthew.

“And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? And [Jesus] said unto him ... keep the commandments. He saith unto him, Which?” Jesus then lists them, including “Thou shalt not steal” and “Thou shalt not bear false witness”. Then “The young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?

“Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that which thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven [rather than, say, Phala Phala] ... “But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.”

Jesus clearly understood the sort of person with whom he was dealing because he then remarks to his disciples: “And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” – unless [and this is my addition] he tells the truth.

[iii] This is almost nine million rand – which I mention for former president Zuma’s edification.

[iv] Where inter alia Fraser is alleged to have run his own secret intelligence programme. Everyone needs an “insurance policy”.

[v] The Supreme Court of Appeal recently ruled that Fraser’s decision to release Zuma on medical parole was unconstitutional and unlawful; and good ol’ Paul O’Sullivan has recently laid criminal charges against Fraser for defeating the ends of justice relating to the parole of Zuma. Presumably, however, O’Sullivan shall have to wait for Zuma to appeal the SCA decision.

[vi] Good thing the serious ANC power brokers are about as keen on females as Milton was.