No choir boys in Politics – the travails of President Cyril Ramaphosa
By Femi Olugbile
Nelson Mandela had once let it be known that Cyril Ramaphosa was the leader he wanted to succeed him as President of South Africa. He it was who, in the eyes of Madiba, had the appropriate DNA, and the required experience. He was the activist who built up the most powerful trade union in the country – the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and acquired massive street-credibility during the worst days of Apartheid.
But by the time Mandela became President in 1994, the story had changed. Dour, cerebral, pipe smoking Thabo Mbeki had become Deputy President of the ANC, out-manouevring the more charismatic Ramaphosa with the grassroots party, and he was a shoo-in eventually to become President of the nation.
Ramaphosa played a crucial role in the negotiations to bring about a peaceful end to the horror of Apartheid. He was Secretary-General of the ANC from 1991 and would remain in post till the end of 1997.
There followed a hiatus in his political engagement as he disappeared from the political scene to concentrate on his private business. He went on to start the Shanduka Group, a conglomerate with interests in mineral resources, energy, real estate, banking, insurance and telecommunications. At various points he had major stakes in McDonald’s South Africa and was chairman of the Board of MTN. He was also a member of the Board of Lonmin – the mining conglomerate formerly known as Lonrho. He would amass a personal fortune estimated at more than US$450 million, making him a very rich man indeed.
In 2014, he returned to political visibility when he was chosen to be Deputy President to an incoming President Jacob Zuma, who took over the Presidency when Thabo Mbeki was unceremoniously shown the door by the ANC. He became the Vice President of the party, as well as chairman of the National Planning Commission.
Zuma’s Presidency was riddled with allegations of personal corruption and ‘state capture’, much of it involving his friends the Gupta brothers.
Ramaphosa’s ascendancy to the Presidency of the African National Congress in December 2017, and eventually to the Presidency of the South African Republic was based on an advertised agenda to sanitise the party and the nation and return the ship of the Rainbow Nation to the path of development and rectitude Madiba had sought to chart for it.
His efforts to rid the party and government of corruption were always guaranteed to attract opposition from different quarters, including those who were benefitting from the system as it was, and the rear-guard of Apartheid, who still believed black people could not be trusted to administer South Africa and would ultimately run it down.
Ramaphosa showed his spine when he faced down Zuma and compelled him to face the full force of the law for the corruption allegations under his watch. This culminated in the former President being sentenced to prison for contempt of court, despite threats and violent protests by his supporters.
Ramaphosa held his nerve. He acquired further credibility and a sense that he might indeed be the man to midwife the birth of a new, clean, and dynamic South Africa.
Unfortunately, the past few weeks have seen developments which carry the risk of demystifying South Africa’s ‘Mr Clean’, destroying him politically and possibly removing him from the Presidency.
It started when an old spy chief and known ally of Jacob Zuma leaked the news that a robbery incident had taken place two years back on Phala Phala, a game park and farm in Limpopo Province belonging to Ramaphosa. Cash, allegedly up to four million US dollars, hidden in furniture in the farm, had been stolen by robbers from Namibia, apparently with the collusion of one of the farm workers.
The issues involved in the scandal are manifold. Four million dollars is a large amount of cash for anyone to keep at home, even for a multimillionaire businessman. Was Inland Revenue aware, for tax purposes? How come the matter was not reported to the Police? According to the whistle-blower, when the principal burglar was eventually caught, people working for the President facilitated his escape across the border into Namibia, instead of handing him over to the police, obviously in a bid to avoid the matter getting to public attention.
After stalling for some time, the President disclosed that some money was indeed stolen from his farm. It was his legitimate money, the proceeds from sale of game. No South African laws had been broken. He denied that he or any of his agents had helped the culprit to escape. And he was cooperating with the Public Protector, the anti-corruption official investigating the matter.
Ramaphosa’s enemies have smelt blood and are moving in for the kill. The South African parliament has constituted a panel to consider the removal of the President. The African National Congress itself is investigating the matter with a view to determining if the President is guilty. Meanwhile the party is supposed to name its presidential candidate for the next election soon. Ramaphosa’s re-election prospects appear in dire jeopardy.
Is this then end of Cyril Ramaphosa, on whom Madiba’s dreams for the Rainbow Nation rest? Or will he manage to wriggle out of, learning a useful lesson in realpolitik along the way?
It would be a real shame if Cyril Ramaphosa went down, especially considering the quality of the people who are angling to take over from him. It would bode I’ll for South Africa, which is just beginning to find its feet and confidence.
Most people believe the stolen money was indeed Ramaphosa’s property, and that no state’s funds were involved.
Perhaps he should have been open about the robbery and taken the heat and embarrassment of public disclosure, instead of taking the route of cover up. It is no comfort to state the obvious – that if the victim of the robbery had been one of the unscrupulous dictators dotting the landscape in Africa and other parts of the world, instead of a sensitive compassionate man like Ramaphosa, the robber would simply have been ‘disappeared’ by faceless state goons.
By seeking to hush up the incident, President Ramaphosa has created a storm that looks set to consume him and set back the quest to put South Africa on a path of clean governance and healthy growth by several years, perhaps even decades.
It may yet not come to that.
But if it were to happen, it would be an own goal, indeed.
Mandela would be turning in his grave.