He allegedly had $4mn in banknotes stuffed down his couch. When the money was stolen, he did not properly inform the authorities. And this was meant to be the good guy. Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa’s president, has been leading the charge against graft. Under his predecessor, Jacob Zuma, the surrender of much of the state to corrupt influences destroyed the moral authority of the ruling African National Congress party, not to mention the finances of the country. Now Ramaphosa himself faces allegations of opacity at best and breaches of the law at worst.
That the president had large quantities of cash on his remote farm, proceeds from the sale of expensive game, is bad enough. His penchant for luxury hardly marks him out as a man of the people. South Africa also has strict limits on foreign currency transactions. Ramaphosa appears to have bypassed a proper investigation, presumably to spare himself embarrassment. He denies any wrongdoing.
There may be an agenda behind the allegations, coming as they do from former spy master and Zuma associate Arthur Fraser. Last week, the final part of a four-and-a-half year inquiry into “state capture” during the Zuma years was published. Ramaphosa’s enemies, especially those who now face the prospect of prosecution, have much to gain from tarring the president with the same corruption-smeared brush.
Still, Ramaphosa comes out badly. For one, he appointed Fraser as his own head of correctional services four years ago, declaring him “fit and proper”. That looks like an error of judgment to put it kindly. Worse, as Raymond Zondo, head of the state capture inquiry, pointed out in his final judgment, Ramaphosa, who was Zuma’s deputy president until 2018, stayed silent for years while his boss ransacked the country. Zuma denies all wrongdoing.
Zondo rightly finds Ramaphosa’s explanation that he sought to fight corruption from within unconvincing. Ramaphosa would have done better to sound the alarm and quit. He must have known what Zuma was up to, Zondo says. The South African press, which acquitted itself well throughout, had been full of stories showing the integrity of the state was in peril. The caution Ramaphosa showed then has been replicated during his presidency. He has been far too timid in taking on corrupt elements within the ANC.
The report’s publication gives Ramaphosa a last chance. The Zondo inquiry names several senior officials with cases to answer. The president must ensure that the cash-starved prosecution authorities have the resources they need to pursue convictions, right up to the highest echelons of the ANC.
This month, authorities in the United Arab Emirates arrested two of the Gupta brothers who stand accused of being at the centre of the state capture project, allegations they deny. Ramaphosa should do everything in his power to bring them to South Africa to face trial, a process that could help in the prosecution of others.
In truth, it is probably too late. The ANC has been in power for 28 years. That is too long for any party to rule unopposed. Its transition from liberation movement to self-serving political incumbent is complete. Assuming Ramaphosa is reaffirmed as party head in December, he and his party must face the electorate in 2024. Local election results suggest that, for the first time since the end of apartheid, the ANC will fail to win an outright majority.
The political future of South Africa will probably be one of coalition governments. Opposition parties from both right and left will get the chance to hold the ANC in check. It will be messy and fractious. It cannot come soon enough.