Can scandal-hit Ramaphosa survive as South Africa’s president?
Ramaphosa’s opponents want him impeached over a growing scandal, but he still retains significant support in the African National Congress.
Johannesburg, South Africa – In December, South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) will hold its elective conference, and key provinces have indicated that they will support President Cyril Ramaphosa’s bid to be re-elected as the party’s leader.
But a personal scandal could see him face an impeachment vote before the conference even takes place.
On June 1, 2022, the former national spy agency boss Arthur Fraser filed a criminal complaint against Ramaphosa, accusing him of money laundering and bribery to cover up a February 2020 heist at his game farm, in which it is alleged that $4m in illicit cash was stolen.
Ramaphosa subsequently issued a statement confirming a robbery took place at his Phala Phala farm but denying any wrongdoing.
The opposition wants Ramaphosa to answer questions about the scandal. But the president also has to answer to several investigating agencies including the elite crime-fighting agency, the Hawks, as well as the office of the Public Protector and the South African Reserve Bank.
In August, Ramaphosa refused to answer questions in parliament related to the burglary and again reiterated that he wants “law enforcement agencies investigating the case to be given the space to do their work”.
On September 9, several opposition parties marched to the office of acting Public Protector Kholeka Gcaleka to demand the release of a report on the alleged robbery.
But while law enforcement agencies are busy investigating various aspects of the burglary, National Assembly Speaker Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula has appointed an independent panel that includes the country’s top judge, former Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo, to conduct a preliminary assessment on whether Ramaphosa should face an impeachment inquiry over alleged misconduct related to the burglary.
The panel of three people has yet to begin its assessment, but will have 30 days from when it starts to report back to the speaker. If the panel recommends impeachment, a special parliamentary committee then decides whether to call an impeachment vote in parliament. If at least two-thirds of legislators support the motion, the president is to be immediately removed from office.
Although the ANC still has a parliamentary majority – holding 230 out of 400 seats – Ramaphosa has enemies in the party, the scandal has triggered a public outcry, and the impeachment process will likely be completed before the ANC’s elective conference.
‘Ramaphosa must go’
In South Africa’s political system, there are no direct presidential elections. The leader of the party with a majority in parliament becomes president.
Since the fall of apartheid rule in 1994, Nelson Mandela and Kgalema Motlanthe have been the only presidents not wrested from power.
Former presidents Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma were both forced to resign over allegations of misconduct.
Ramaphosa took office in 2018 after defeating a Zuma-backed candidate in the ANC general elections and pledged to root out state corruption.
He has faced a tough few years, tasked with steering the country through the COVID-19 pandemic as well as facing high unemployment, violence and crime, major unrest, crippling power blackouts and internal ANC squabbles.
But the Phala Phala farm scandal now poses the biggest threat to his presidency.
The public has been outraged by the scandal, with #RamaphosaMustGo and #PhalaPhalaFarm regularly trending on social media and protesters calling on him to step down.
Opposition political parties have called for him to step down, with the loudest demands coming from Julius Malema, a former ANC youth league leader who now leads the left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters party.
“Ramaphosa must know that his days are numbered in that office of the president,” Malema told thousands of EFF members at the party’s ninth anniversary celebrations on July 30.
Malema and his EFF were instrumental in the removal of former President Zuma by disrupting his addresses in parliament and maintaining calls on him to resign.
Ramaphosa has also faced dissent from within the ANC over the Phala Phala farm scandal, with ANC supporters joining protests and senior party figures indirectly criticising him or urging him to step aside.
In July, senior ANC politician Mavuso Msimang told a radio programme that Ramaphosa “should temporarily step aside as head of state until his name is cleared”.
At a gathering in the Eastern Cape on September 18, Minister of Tourism Lindiwe Sisulu criticised politicians who “hoard money under mattresses while the nation starves”.
Meanwhile, at a memorial service for ANC party stalwart Jessie Duarte held in July, Mbeki told mourners that the country could face an “Arab Spring” style uprising if the ANC does not get its house in order and develop concrete plans to deal with the country’s many problems – especially the youth unemployment rate of 66.5 percent.
“You cannot have so many people unemployed, so many people living in poverty, faced with lawlessness and faced with corrupt leadership and not expect the situation to not one day explode”, said Mbeki.
Ramaphosa did not respond immediately to Mbeki’s criticism, but addressing ANC members at the KwaZulu-Natal conference in July, he said the challenges South Africa faces are longstanding.
“[Unemployment] did not start two years ago,” he said. “We have lived with this problem for a number of years and we have been involved amongst the social partners on finding or creating steps that we need to take to address all these challenges.”
Ramaphosa’s allies have said that cleaning Africa’s oldest liberation movement of corruption has been unpopular with many in the party, and this is causing the infighting and calls for Ramaphosa’s removal.
‘There is no one else to govern’
Oscar van Heerden, an author and political commentator who was an ANC member in the 1980s, said Ramaphosa’s opponents can make life difficult for him but are unlikely to succeed in winning an impeachment vote as he is still supported by the rank and file within the ANC, which is also worried about the 2024 election performance and sees Ramaphosa as a safer bet.
Zuma and Mbeki were only removed from office after they were deposed as leaders of the ANC.
“If Ramaphosa wins the ANC presidency race, which I think he will, the ANC will be better poised to win the 2024 election,” van Heerden said.
Benedict Xolani Dube, head of the Xubera Institute for Research and Development, told Al Jazeera that – even though he thinks the country needs new leadership – Ramaphosa will survive as president because divisions in the ANC could threaten its electoral chances and because ANC politicians who oppose Ramaphosa still require his support to be nominated in the next election.
“This is the predicament for the ANC and the country: without him, there is no one else to govern,” Dube said.
“[But] we must no longer look at the ANC as the messiah who will change things. We need leadership in the country.”
Political analyst Levy Ndou told Al Jazeera that if the National Prosecuting Authority brings charges against Ramaphosa, it could alter the complexion of the situation.
“If there is no evidence,” he said, “there is nothing to stand on and the ANC will continue to support Ramaphosa as right now there is no one else to replace him.”