There will be life after Ramaphosa

It is time the ANC realises that standing by President Ramaphosa is no longer to the benefit of the party or the country.

Cyril Ramaphosa supporters
Supporters of South African President Cyril Ramaphosa hold placards as they gather ahead of an impeachment vote at the National Assembly in Cape Town on December 13, 2022 [File: Gianluigi Guercia/AFP]

On December 13, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa survived an impeachment vote in the National Assembly.

The vote was called by opposition parties over claims that large sums of foreign currency were hidden at Ramaphosa’s private Phala Phala game farm and that he failed to report the money missing when it was stolen in 2020. It came on the back of a parliamentary inquiry report on the scandal which determined that Ramaphosa may indeed have “committed misconduct and violated the constitution”.

The vote failed largely because the ruling African National Congress Party (ANC) – of which Ramaphosa is president – had ordered its parliamentary caucus to vote against the adoption of the damning Phala Phala farm report in the supposed “best interests of the country”.

The party’s decision to shield Ramaphosa from impeachment procedures allowed the embattled president the space to fight the corruption allegations – which he categorically denies and is challenging in court – without losing his grip on power or jeopardising the ANC’s future in government.

The decision, however, has also called into question the ANC’s widely advertised resolve to fight corruption and laid bare the many sharp divisions within the party.

In 2017, the ANC decided that any members charged with corruption or other serious crimes must voluntarily “step aside” from party and government activities – or face suspension – until their cases are resolved.

In May 2021, for example, then-party secretary-general Ace Magashule was suspended under this rule after refusing to step down to fight corruption allegations.

The ANC’s decision to support Ramaphosa’s presidency even after the publication of the damning Phala Phala farm report, therefore, was a break with convention and raised questions about the seriousness of the party’s anti-corruption agenda.

Moreover, this controversial decision was in no way unanimous.

Former Health Minister Zweli Mkhize claimed ANC chairperson Gwede Mantashe and Ramaphosa’s other allies “bullied” party members into rejecting the Phala Phala farm report during a “mafia style” national executive committee meeting held on December 5. And several high-ranking party members, including cabinet minister and former African Union Commission chair Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, still defied party instructions and voted for the Phala Phala report to be adopted – and the president to be impeached – on December 13.

This, of course, does not mean the decision to shield Ramaphosa from impeachment proceedings was forced onto members. Beyond merely refusing to support impeachment, many leading ANC figures and loyalists had clearly voiced their support for Ramaphosa’s continued leadership before the impeachment vote.

The powerful Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), for example, declared its commitment to “answerability”, but said calls for Ramaphosa to step aside were “premature”. Minister in the presidency and member of the ANC national executive committee, Mondli Gungubele, meanwhile, described calls for Ramaphosa to step down as the “noise of criminals masquerading as defenders of the ANC”.

It is even claimed that Ramaphosa initially wanted to resign in response to the parliamentary panel report, but was convinced not to do so by his closest allies, including ministers Pravin Gordhan, Fikile Mbalula, Mmamoloko Kubayi, and Barbara Creecy. The ministers allegedly pointed to the adverse reaction of the markets and the party membership to the news of his possible departure as evidence that South Africa (and the ANC) still needs his leadership.

So the ANC decision to shield Ramaphosa from impeachment was clearly backed by some of the most influential figures and factions within the party.

Nevertheless, the Phala Phala farm saga has blemished Ramaphosa’s image beyond repair, and keeping him in office will likely damage not only ANC’s future prospects and credibility, but also South Africa’s democracy.

Indeed, until he fully clears his name of any wrongdoing, Ramaphosa cannot be the leader he promised South Africans he would be.

Ramaphosa ascended to power in 2018 as a swashbuckling, honest and clean reformer willing to do whatever it takes to resuscitate the economy and rid South Africa of the political corruption and economic mismanagement that thrived under former President Jacob Zuma.

Today, however, rolling blackouts, extensive corruption and mismanagement at state institutions and enterprises coupled with a shocking 32.9 percent unemployment rate demonstrate that the president has largely failed to measure up to his star billing.

Ramaphosa clearly could not fulfil his promises to the people in his first four years in power and he is unlikely to fulfil them in the coming years while under the shadow of serious corruption allegations.

So why on earth is the ANC insisting on standing by Ramaphosa?

The party’s decision to close ranks in the face of a damning presidential scandal was unfortunately not in any way out of the ordinary.

Most former liberation movements that came to be in government in Africa have a tendency to prioritise party interests over national or democratic imperatives in the face of unfathomable scandal, underwhelming leadership or bad governance. For the most part, they choose to continue supporting their prominent leaders in self-inflicted hard times in fear of appearing disloyal, damaging the brand name and potentially haemorrhaging support in the next elections.

Just to give a few examples, this has already happened in Zimbabwe with Robert Mugabe and in Angola with Jose Eduardo dos Santos. In both cases, the results were disastrous for concerned nations who suffered terribly as those in charge of governing them focussed all their energy on protecting the political fortunes of their leaders.

It seems today this sad episode is once again repeating itself in South Africa, with the ANC running to the defence of its leader without any consideration for the wellbeing of the South African state and people.

To be clear, this does not in any way mean that Ramaphosa is certainly guilty of corruption or that he is a bad leader. We cannot know the truth of what happened in Phala Phala until all legal proceedings are completed. And it is impossible to deny Ramaphosa has many characteristics and abilities, from his affable demeanour and his inclusive leadership style to his problem-solving capabilities that make him a worthy president of South Africa.

Nevertheless, in modern democracies, the interests of the nation should always come first and this may at times require sacrificing the political fortunes of an overall good leader.

As history amply demonstrates, the establishment of a cult of personality – whether incidental or deliberate – often serves to entrench narrow political and economic interests and enable maladministration and repression, even if the personality chosen for the job is “good” or even the “best”.

As it stands, South Africa is Africa’s leading democracy.

That might change, however, if the ANC resorts to expedient politics and cannot envision life beyond Ramaphosa’s presidency.

South Africa’s wellbeing must always supersede a politician’s ambitions, or potential, and parties must constantly eschew the temptation to bend democratic truths and establish a political demigod.

Besides, the seamless departure of a legendary former president like Nelson Mandela must remind current parliamentarians and ANC officials that no leader, however accomplished, is irreplaceable.

In 1999, South Africa’s first president himself underlined this fact when he said “There will be life after Mandela”.

Today, Ramaphosa would serve South Africa the best by resigning from the presidency and responding to the corruption allegations he is facing as a private citizen. This would not only give him a chance to eventually return to the political arena with an intact reputation but also demonstrate to South Africans that he prioritises the nation’s prospects over his own.

And letting Ramaphosa go at this point in time will allow the ANC to prove that it is indeed the party that built modern South Africa and that it does not owe its relevance or power to any particular leader.

There, too, believe it or not, will be life after Ramaphosa.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.