Cyril Ramaphosa: the South African president clinging to power

The question this week for South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa was not how he has survived a scandal involving a Sudanese businessman with a penchant for buffalo, half a million dollars in cash, and a sofa on his private game farm. It was why, halfway through the mother of all repair jobs to an embattled young democracy, and five years into a presidency he waited decades for, his immediate inclination was to resign over the whole outlandish affair.

Ramaphosa’s Cheshire-cat smile will hide it well when the ruling African National Congress likely re-elects him as leader next week, but he prepared to quit last Thursday, hours after a report to parliament refused to buy his story over a bizarre 2020 theft at his Phala Phala farm. The details were excruciating — “substantial doubt” that the cash, stolen from the sofa, had just been resting there, as the proceeds from a sudden sale of buffalo — but far from definitive. Even close advisers were stunned as a goodbye speech was written.

Though the moment never came, it still said everything about the man, his bid to fix South Africa by the book, and the fragility of progress so far. “The whole irony of this story is that the president is a constitutionalist to his core,” a close aide says. Before they frantically talked him into fighting back instead, Ramaphosa wanted to set a precedent over accountability, despite what he saw as a flawed report. “His first question was what would serve the interests of the country,” the aide adds. “It sounds trite, but that is the kind of person he is.”

By the corroded standards of the modern ANC, which pledged to block his impeachment this week, it just sounds like he’s in the wrong party. Nelson Mandela’s old movement has plunged its hands into the mire to defend much worse in recent times. Jacob Zuma clung on through years of “state capture”, looting of institutions, until his ouster in 2018. As Zuma’s deputy, Ramaphosa stayed silent rather than resign, in order to make it to the top and repair the damage. That was not his proudest chapter, but the questions over Phala Phala might yet eclipse it.

One South African writer even compared last week’s report, led by a former chief justice, to furniture fan-fiction as it pondered how exactly one conceals $580,000 inside a sofa. (Working theory: turn it upside down, open it up, and shove the cash inside the frame.)

Talk about a seamy underside. This is not how many saw the moral arc of a leader, 70 last month, who grew up in the Johannesburg township of Soweto and won early glory as a mineworker lawyer battling apartheid. He co-founded South Africa’s biggest mining union with a friend, James Motlatsi, who urged him last week, 40 years after they first met at the Western Deep Levels mine: “You cannot be told by the criminals to go.”

Ramaphosa was just 39 in 1991 when the newly unbanned ANC made him secretary-general and sent him to help draft the post-apartheid constitution, but it passed him over as Mandela’s successor. The legend of an ANC leader in waiting was born. So was Ramaphosa the businessman. He built an investment empire on the opportunities for black investors from so-called empowerment financing. Business has seen him as one of their own ever since. Detractors say that the wealth has always come far too easily, all the way to bulges in the upholstery at Phala Phala.

“Let him sell Ankole [prized cattle] and buffalo” — after stepping down, says Herman Mashaba, a businessman who is in a way an anti-Ramaphosa: a self-made black entrepreneur who came up in the teeth of apartheid. He is also the polar opposite of Ramaphosa’s comradely gentility as a maverick leading an upstart opposition party, ActionSA. “We cannot have a president who runs our country as a sideline,” Mashaba says. Waiting in the ANC wings is a rogue’s gallery of hard men. They are not acolytes of Zuma, but nor are they inclined to implement reforms that threaten their patronage in lucrative crannies of the state. They rescued Ramaphosa this week. When he shares a podium with them in the coming days, he might reflect on the stakes.

“Listening to the president in the last week, I think he will come out swinging after [the ANC election] . . . Not just him, but a lot of people have seen that we cannot take the reform process for granted,” the aide says. “You don’t know what you have until it is gone. We have to get things done quickly.” The problem, they say, is that many of the reforms are like planes taxiing for take-off. They need a long runway. Some plans are in the air. Rebuilding law enforcement took time but is paying off with prosecutions.

Still, moves this year to liberate energy investment from Eskom, the broken state electricity provider, will only see results far down the line, after the 2024 elections. These will be tough for the ANC to win outright, even assuming Ramaphosa survives the Phala Phala flak. Rolling blackouts are already intense. “This is the end of the ANC’s dominance of South African politics. Cyril really served as by far its most potent weapon,” says Songezo Zibi, co-founder of the Rivonia Circle think-tank.

Zibi is one of many thinking about how to renew South Africa in the twilight of what he calls the “subtle oligarchy” of the old guard — the post-1994 elite epitomised by Ramaphosa. The clock was already running down on the president’s quest to remake the country. Now it is ticking faster for him and what is left of Africa’s oldest surviving political party, as South Africans look for an alternative before the lights go out for good. As Zibi says: “When Cyril goes, that is it”.

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