Ramaphosa’s promised ‘new dawn’ tainted beyond repair for some, but not all

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa who on December 1, 2022 was talks with the ruling party ANC as pressure mounted for him to quit. PHOTO | PHILL MAGAKOE | AFP

What you need to know:

  • Before being a businessman with many ‘irons in the fire’, Ramaphosa was an effervescent, likeable, very smart union organiser, working under the broad umbrella of the internal anti-apartheid campaign.
  • Well known to those covering apartheid, including this reporter, Ramaphosa was, even from as early as the latter part of the 1980s, clearly in line to rise to higher things.

Howls from opposition political groupings for S African President Cyril Ramaphosa to resign, following a scandal over a large quantity of US dollars stolen from his Phala Phala game farm almost three years ago, may be considered “the obvious”.

But what is not yet “obvious”, or even remotely clear, is whether the scandal – in which Ramaphosa has repeatedly insisted he carries no personal liability – will permanently damage Ramaphosa politically, and perhaps also destroy the promise of “renewal”, of both the ruling party and state structures riddled with the party’s corrupt deployees, on the back of which he rose to power in 2018.

Making the issue of his continued leadership of the ruling party, and the country, especially pointed is that Ramaphosa was the African National Congress’s replacement for corruption-tainted former president Jacob Zuma as head of both party and state.

The wider question being asked by S Africans is what the ANC will do in dealing with yet another hammer-blow to its credibility and that of its leaders, many of whom have been either directly implicated in ‘state capture’ mass thievery from public funds, or of having turned a blind eye to that. 

That so much should hang on the political destiny of Ramaphosa has been pointed to by some as part of the ANC’s essential problem, which could be summed up as having been caught between the stools of ‘exiled liberation movement involved in a valiant struggle against apartheid and racist injustice’, and much admired for that, and the role of a governing party.

Now, in the wake of the nearly four-year long Zondo commission of inquiry into the systematic thievery described as ‘state capture’, and which came into full bloom under Zuma, it is clear that as Zondo himself said to Ramaphosa, it is the ANC itself which stands accused, both in the formal courts through its many functionaries facing prosecution, and in the court of public perception.

Ramaphosa too had to own before Zondo that he was “quiet” about widespread corruption, in the years after he was brought back into the ANC leadership, pulled into the political fray again from making himself immensely rich in the private sector, mainly to add business heft to Zuma’s otherwise lightweight cabinet in 2012. 

Before being a businessman with many ‘irons in the fire’, Ramaphosa was an effervescent, likeable, very smart union organiser, working under the broad umbrella of the internal anti-apartheid campaign.

Well known to those covering apartheid, including this reporter, Ramaphosa was, even from as early as the latter part of the 1980s, clearly in line to rise to higher things.

On the day when Nelson Mandela was finally released from 27 years behind bars for participating in the armed struggle against apartheid, it was young Cyril who stood, in an uncontrolled and euphoric crush of people at Cape Town’s City Hall, on a tiny balcony overseeing the vast crowd of tens of thousands gathered to hear Mandela’s first words as a free man, the then still-youthful trade unionist valiantly attempting to keep the microphone within range of Mandela’s voice.

Ramaphosa, almost overwhelmed by the crush, was working against a vast noise from the gathered throng, ululations and cheers threatening to drown Madiba out entirely. 

From that symbolic support for Madiba, working literally at his elbow from day one, Ramaphosa grew in stature as the ANC came home from exile and set to work through the multi-party negotiations that followed, to eventually reach an agreement that avoided what many had thought inevitable: an outright and spectacularly brutal racial war.

That such an agreement was reached was never inevitable.

Repeatedly, the talks almost collapsed while a low-grade civil war played out between forces backed secretly by the apartheid government, or elements in it, and the ANC’s young comrades, especially in the Zulu homeland province of KwaZulu-Natal, where the civil war was actual and intense.

Ramaphosa played a key hand in the negotiations which led to the 1994 democratic elections and the sweeping to power of Mandela and his ANC on the back of promises of a “better life for all”. 

Twenty-eight years on, those promises seem to some, interviewed in vox populi (‘popular voice’) manner by all three of S Africa’s 24-hour TV news channels, to have proven empty, some black S Africans even saying out loud that the ANC has not merely failed to fulfil the promises of ‘political freedom’, but that life quality for many had “gone backwards” in recent years.

Among those critics are also opposition leaders, as might be expected, especially the official opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), and Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

Both these parties have honed in on the latest scandal to have consumed the ANC just 10 days ahead of its next elective conference, attempting to force Ramaphosa from power, either by a vote of impeachment or by a dissolution of Parliament, both outcomes currently considered long-shots, at the least.

Already there are clear signs that the ANC is forming up behind Ramaphosa, much as had happened with his predecessor Jacob Zuma.

Once he had been essentially ‘pushed from the centre of power’ as Mandela’s known chosen successor to lead the ANC in the mid-1990s, with Thabo Mbeki emerging victorious, Ramaphosa had taken to business.

He became a leading recipient of preferential deals designed to help transfer some of the wealth of the country from the previously entitled and very rich to those who were never either of those things.

Black economic empowerment, in various forms, became legal requirements, forcing major businesses such as mining houses, in Ramaphosa’s case, to sell at almost give-away rates – sometimes in effect giving away – shares of their publicly-owned entities to the “formerly disadvantaged”.

Consequent to these moves, Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa, born 17 November 1952 in Soweto, Johannesburg, rose from lowly origins to become one of the country’s richest ‘self-made’ men.

He is married to Tshepo Motsepe, a South African physician and businesswoman in her own right.

She is also the sister of billionaire Patrice Motsepe, frequently referred to as S Africa’s and one of Africa’s richest men.

Part of Ramaphosa’s initial impulse to resign in the face of the ‘Phala Phala saga’ blowing up last week was that he is said to feel “entirely innocent” of knowingly being involved in anything illegal.

Ramaphosa is known to be very protective of his largely respected pre-presidential reputation, allegations of “going along with” Zuma and his ‘state capture project’ notwithstanding, something which Ramaphosa attempted to explain to Zondo as “biding his time” until he could do something meaningful to put the ANC, and the country, back to rights.

He is known to have very strong personal views on the corruption which has gripped the ANC, and is said to have felt that all his work has been “undone” by the Phala Phala matter, something which happened, in this version of events, entirely beyond his specific knowledge and without his direct involvement, except to report the matter after it had happened.

Already it is clear there is little to no validity to many of the allegations Ramaphosa is facing, as made by Zuma ally Arthur Fraser.

Fraser once headed Zuma’s spy agency, now under reformation back to its original purpose, and who last year illegally overruled the prisons parole board to wrongfully release Zuma early from a 15-month jail term for contempt of the Constitutional Court’s orders.

There is a strong argument in the ‘pro-Ramaphosa camp’, which extends far beyond the ANC itself into the business community and the general public, that the allegations against him do not stand up to muster, Fraser seeming to have grossly exaggerated many elements in his criminal complaint against Ramaphosa.

Put together with the “mistakes”, as so construed by those advising Ramaphosa to fight on, of the panel which reported on Ramaphosa’s liability, including using hearsay in numerous instances instead of admissible evidence, Ramaphosa has been convinced it is better for not only the ANC but the country as a whole that he stays on.

The view on the streets is deeply mixed: some say he must go, others that he must stay on and prove he is not corrupt and carry on with “fixing the ANC”, as one participant in ad hoc street interviews caried on TV put it. 

Phala Phala scandal

While those who hold that Ramaphosa is still not merely the ANC’s best bet for the next round of elections in 2024, the party having fallen below 50 percent national support in the last round of voting, but of “putting the country right”, are insisting he stay on, there is no doubt but that Phala Phala will hang heavy on Ramaphosa going forward.

When he came back into politics in 2012, there was some murmuring against him among the far-left elements in the ANC and its alliance partners in the SA Communist Party and the Congress of SA Trade Unions.

He was, after all, both union organiser and anti-apartheid struggle icon, but also a super-rich businessman, in the minds of some, therefore, definitionally ‘the enemy of the proletariat’.

But he was quiet for much of the second Zuma term – until it was time in early 2017 to make his bid for the top job, winning that only through a piece of arch-deception by his now Deputy and possible successor, should Ramaphosa be pushed from power, David Mabuza.

Having vowed to fix the party which Mandela wanted him to lead, Ramaphosa seems to have elected to fight to clear his name – at least for now.

This will likely ensure that while it will not “go away”, the Phala Phala matter will also be unlikely to prevent Ramaphosa from gaining a second term, something those aligned with Zuma have been most fervently attempting to stop from happening.

That Ramaphosa’s reputation is sullied as a result of the Phala Phala saga may be considered as “obvious”.

But what is not yet evident is whether he can weather this storm, emerge from the forthcoming leadership race as still leader of the ANC, just ahead of Christmas, and go on into 2023 to ride out the rest of the Phala Phala saga, while continuing with his “clean-up campaign” of party and state.

As one analyst put it: “He is still by far the best of the worst,” referencing the now documented penchant of the ANC-in-power to have become progressively more corrupt and incompetent in public office, the longer it has been in power.

None can say as yet whether, Phala Phala having derailed him somewhat, Ramaphosa will recover and go on to fulfil, in some significant measure, his “renewal” promises for party and state.

But with the first blast of the political storm having passed, a doubtlessly raucous Parliamentary debate pending, and many other intervening steps to be taken, and with his first impulse to walk away from it all having also passed, the usually calm and considered Ramaphosa is being encouraged to go into a more feistily defensive posture.

His supporters, also very vocal on the streets and in social media, want him to ‘hold the line’ against known deeply corrupt elements so that he, and his supporters in his factionally-riven party, can finish what he set out to do almost five years ago, when, finally, the seemingly irredeemably corrupt Zuma was forced from power.


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