Is South Africa’s Ramaphosa Headed the Same Way as UK’s Johnson?


Just a few months ago, Cyril Ramaphosa was considered a shoo-in for a second term as leader of South Africa’s ruling party and ultimately the country. Now the risk is mounting he could be headed the same way as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who quit this week.

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(Bloomberg) — Just a few months ago, Cyril Ramaphosa was considered a shoo-in for a second term as leader of South Africa’s ruling party and ultimately the country. Now the risk is mounting he could be headed the same way as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who quit this week.

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Ramaphosa is facing opposition calls to resign as police investigate alleged irregularities surrounding the theft in 2020 of at least $4 million from his game ranch. 

Opponents within the ruling African National Congress are also making the most of the scandal, and three of his allies who spoke on condition of anonymity have expressed concern he may have to step down. At least one ANC heavyweight is already circling in anticipation of mounting a leadership challenge.

“I don’t think Ramaphosa will last as ANC president and head of state until the party’s elective conference scheduled for the end of the year, especially if he is charged,” Moeletsi Mbeki, chairman of the South African Institute of International Affairs, said by phone from Johannesburg. “If this happens then he will be the first ANC president not to complete his first term in office.”

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Question marks over Ramaphosa’s fate threaten to stoke political and economic uncertainty at a time of near record-high unemployment, a drawn-out energy crisis, accelerating inflation and the most dismal consumer sentiment since the apartheid era. 

It’s a rapid fall from grace for Ramaphosa, whose allies recently won control of several key structures of the ANC and expressed support for his re-election. His fortunes turned last month when the nation’s former spy chief Arthur Fraser dropped a bombshell, filing a complaint with the police alleging the theft of cash hidden in furniture at the president’s ranch wasn’t properly reported, and that those responsible were illegally detained and interrogated.

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“The President will follow all proper due processes as we have stated previously” about the robbery in his farm, Ramaphosa’s spokesman Vincent Magwenya, said in a text message.

Ramaphosa confirmed money was stolen but has steadfastly refused to provide details, raising suspicions that he may have broken exchange-control rules or other laws. The Hawks, a special police investigative unit, and the nation’s graft ombudsman are investigating the matter. 

“This is South Africa, it’s not UK,” South African Labor Minister Thulas Nxesi said in an interview on Thursday in Bloomberg’s Johannesburg office. “You can see that it’s all about” the party’s elective conference in December, he said, adding that the investigative process needs to be followed before any action can be taken.

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With opposition urging Ramaphosa to quit, posters are now circulating in the northern Limpopo province calling for him to go.

If he does, Paul Mashatile, the party’s treasurer-general who was angling to become its deputy leader, could change tack and join former health minister Zweli Mkhize in contesting the top job in December, according to one of his close confidants, who asked not to be identified because the person isn’t authorized to comment. Mashatile, who has previously expressed support for Ramaphosa getting a second term, didn’t respond to a request for comment. 

A lawyer and one of the richest black South Africans, Ramaphosa staked his political colors on stamping out the graft that became endemic during his predecessor Jacob Zuma’s rule. The ANC must “act fearlessly against alleged corruption and abuse of office within our ranks,” he proclaimed shortly after he was first elected the party’s leader in December 2017. 

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Among the leads being probed by the police are allegations that one of Ramaphosa’s top advisers and confidants brought the cash stolen from the president’s farm in the northern Limpopo province into the country on a private plane using his diplomatic passport. If true, that would contradict Ramaphosa’s assertion that he made the money by selling animals. 

Police spokesperson Nomthandazo Mbambo declined to comment on the status of investigations. Under ANC rules, Ramaphosa will have to step down if prosecutors do decide to prosecute him. While he’s undertaken to brief the party’s ethics committee on the saga, he’s yet to do so. 

“I am and will remain committed to the fulfillment of my oath of office,” Ramaphosa said in response to a parliamentary questions. “I do not intend to address these matters in a piece-meal fashion and will ensure the investigations currently under way have my full cooperation. The law must be allowed to take its course and due process needs to be followed.”

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The Democratic Alliance, the main opposition party has written to the Federal Bureau of Investigation to ask it to investigate the presence of dollars at Ramaphosa’s farm but have yet to get a response. The Economic Freedom Fighters, the third-biggest party, wants the central bank and national tax agency to disclose whether the cash was declared to them and has said it will go to court if they fail to do so. 

Ramaphosa’s anti-corruption credentials were further tarnished last month when a judicial commission criticized him for failing to speak out about the abuse of state resources while he served as Zuma’s deputy and questioned why he didn’t resign in protest. The panel, headed by Chief Justice Raymond Zondo also said the president was less than forthright when he testified and it was “somewhat opaque” what he knew. 

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Ramaphosa has also come under fire for failing to address an energy crisis that’s been hobbling Africa’s most industrialized economy since 2008, despite numerous undertakings to do so, or tackle near record-high unemployment. 

Power cuts are approaching record levels just seven months into the year, with state-owned utility Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd. struggling to meet electricity demand from its mostly old and poorly maintained plants, and business confidence levels are at their lowest levels in almost two years. 

Even so, Ramaphosa’s departure isn’t assured. While several of Johnson’s senior cabinet ministers in the UK quit and senior members of his Conservative Party prevailed on him to go, none of Ramaphosa’s ministers have openly turned on him and the ANC has stood by him so far. 

“It is usual to have accusations, speculations and conspiracy theories in the run up to an elective conference,” Melanie Verwoerd, an independent political analyst and former ANC lawmaker, said by phone from Cape Town. “Those who are actively pursuing to have him removed are themselves facing very serious charges of corruption and even possibly treason. The ANC has no other credible leader.” 

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