South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa is in trouble.
A subdued response to a speech at a major political conference on Friday indicated that all was not well. He admitted that his party, the governing African National Congress (ANC), was “at its weakest”, but the president himself is in the firing line.
Four years ago, he replaced corruption-tainted Jacob Zuma as president on the promise of being clean.
But now he has his own potentially explosive corruption scandal. Dubbed “farmgate”, the controversy surrounds an alleged cover-up of a robbery that took place at his private farm, Phala Phala, back in February 2020.
This is happening in a year when the ANC is set to choose its presidential candidate for the 2024 election and Mr Ramaphosa is under increasing scrutiny.
After dragging his feet, he finally responded to questions about the incident from the country’s top anti-corruption official, known as the Public Protector.
Kholeka Gcaleka had threatened to subpoena the president after he failed to meet an initial deadline for the answers to be delivered.
The robbery and the alleged aftermath was first brought to light in June by Arthur Fraser, the country’s former head of the State Security Agency.
The ex-spy chief, who is a close ally of Zuma, accused the president of kidnapping, bribery and acting unlawfully by allegedly authorizing the pursuit of suspects who stole an estimated $4m (£3.2m) from his farm.
Mr Fraser further alleged that such a large amount of money, which was reportedly stuffed in cushions, could have been the proceeds from money laundering and corruption.
The theft was allegedly committed by Namibian nationals who conspired with a domestic worker on the farm.
‘No criminal conduct’
As the stolen cash was reportedly in foreign currency, it means that exchange control laws could also have been contravened.
In an initial response, the president said that there was “no basis for the claims of criminal conduct”.
Mr Ramaphosa’s office confirmed that there was a robbery at his farm in Limpopo province “in which proceeds from the sale of game were stolen”, but disputed the figure given by Mr Fraser.
Some of the questions posed by the Public Protector concerned whether the president violated the code of ethics and the constitution by concealing the break-in at his farm. She also wanted to know what steps the president took to ensure that the theft was thoroughly investigated.
The president has dismissed Mr Fraser’s allegations as a political smear campaign against him by those opposed to his anti-corruption agenda. He also believes that his political opponents within the ANC do not want him to have a second term in office.
In a speech two weeks ago, Mr Ramaphosa said he had “pledged his full co-operation to the investigation” and he was happy to be held accountable.
In a veiled declaration of an internal war within the ANC, the president also said he “would not allow the [corruption] allegations to deter me from what needs to be done to rebuild our economy, and to deter me and discourage me from the work I have to do”. Mr Ramaphosa was cheered on by his supporters.
According to ANC rules, anyone charged with corruption or other crimes must step down while investigations take place.
Even though the president has not been formally charged with any crimes, supporters of Zuma want him to resign.
Last month, hundreds of them protested at the ANC’s headquarters, demanding his arrest and resignation.
Zuma, whose corruption trial is set to restart this month, enjoys the support of a left-wing ANC faction and his supporters are still smarting from his jailing last year for contempt of court for failing to attend a separate inquiry into corruption during his presidency. He served nearly two months of a 15-month sentence before being released on medical parole.
Their resignation demand was further driven home when some delegates later booed Mr Ramaphosa at a conference in KwaZulu-Natal province – a Zuma stronghold.
‘Damaging the country’s image’
The opposition is also turning up the heat on the president.
Bantu Holomisa, the leader of the United Democratic Movement, wrote to the speaker of parliament demanding that the president be suspended pending the outcome of the investigation against him.
“The allegations have been greatly destructive of the country’s image and likely to affect investor confidence negatively, given that President Ramaphosa has acted as a champion of good governance,” Mr Holomisa said.
Even though President Ramaphosa does have questions to answer about the dollars stolen from his farm, Mr Fraser’s timing is widely seen as suspicious in light of the ANC’s leadership contest.
South Africans have grown accustomed to explosive scandals, conspiracies and mudslinging ahead of the brutal race for the ANC’s top position.
This year is no different.
In December, the ANC will hold an elective conference to choose who will be its next presidential candidate and tensions are guaranteed.