Cyril Ramaphosa seemed so confident in his position as South Africa’s president last week that he jetted off to the UK to enjoy the pomp of a state visit, as nominations poured in at home to re-elect him as leader of the ruling African National Congress.
Just days later, the presidency of a man who pledged to resurrect the fortunes of Africa’s most industrialised nation was on the brink as friends battled to persuade him not to resign, and old foes circled, over a damning report into a bizarre theft from his own game farm.
Ramaphosa’s ANC colleagues will meet over the weekend to discuss his fate after a frenzied 48 hours when it seemed likely that he might quit. It would be an abrupt end for the trade unionist-turned-businessman, who as a drafter of South Africa’s democratic constitution appeared to be a safe pair of hands after the state looting under Jacob Zuma, whom he ousted in 2018.
Without Ramaphosa, “a group of criminals” would return to power in Africa’s oldest surviving political movement and South Africa would “become a banana republic”, James Motlatsi, one of his oldest friends, warned on Friday.
But even if he survives and South Africa avoids a return of the kind of state capture Zuma presided over, the hit to Ramaphosa’s reputation may still spell doom for the ANC in 2024 elections, 30 years after it first gained power.
“His whole presidency was one of renewal and clean-up and his whole platform for being re-elected as ANC leader was that he’s the best of the lot. That’s completely blown out of the water here,” said Sithembile Mbete, a political scientist at the University of Pretoria.
The scandal that could end Ramaphosa’s political career has been bubbling for months, and concerns a 2020 robbery at the president’s Phala Phala reserve, and accusations of a cover-up levelled at the president by Arthur Fraser, a former spy chief under Zuma.
Many at first saw the outlandish claims of wads of cash being hidden inside a sofa as the ravings of a Zuma acolyte, except for the fact that as part of his quest for unity in the party, Ramaphosa had also made Fraser his head of South Africa’s prisons.
As several investigations began, Ramaphosa’s few clarifications — including that the cash kept on the farm was legitimate proceeds from selling buffalo — baffled South Africans more than they enlightened. The saga culminated in a parliamentary report on Wednesday that concluded he should be investigated for possible impeachment.
South Africa’s main opposition parties have since called for the president to step down. To buy time, Ramaphosa’s allies have pushed for a legal challenge to the report, saying it overstepped its remit and was lacking in evidence.
Yet others say Ramaphosa’s inability to reveal basic details of the robbery is what has made this investigation so damaging — such as, in the report’s words, the “substantial doubt about the legitimacy of the source of the currency that was stolen”.
The president may also want to avoid a court battle over the scandal, whether out of respect for the legal process or fears of how his enemies in the ANC would use it.
Dale McKinley, an independent analyst, noted how Ramaphosa had never sought to use the courts to slow down the investigations. While he would have come under attack from his detractors in the ANC if he had done so, “he probably also felt confident that he could beat the charges”, McKinley added.
Ramaphosa had come up against a more rigorous parliamentary process to remove a president than Zuma faced, McKinley also noted. South Africa’s parliament strengthened its ability to investigate alleged presidential misconduct after 2018 largely because Zuma’s dodging of multiple no-confidence votes exposed gaps in accountability.
If Ramaphosa leaves the scene, the battle will centre on how long the institutions rebuilt from the ashes of state capture could outlast the ruling party’s return to chaos.
Songezo Zibi, head of Rivonia Circle, a civic think-tank, said that those pushing for Ramaphosa’s exit in the ANC could live to regret it.
“He was the ANC’s electoral trump card, because his own popularity far exceeds that of the ANC,” he added. “They may be authors of the ANC’s own electoral obituary in 2024.”
Ramaphosa is credited with delivering the ANC its national election victory in 2019. But analysts say he slowed, rather than stopped, the slide in the party’s popularity.
In local polls last year the party’s vote share fell below half for the first time. Surveys suggest it could lose its national majority in the next election.
“He has artificially extended the life of the ANC in power,” said William Gumede, chair of Democracy Works, a civic foundation. “Without him, we’ll be talking about the ANC going below 40 per cent of the vote.
“If he goes, there’s going to be an interim period [between now and the 2024 election] of the old state capturers grabbing what they can . . . but the good people will also fight back.”
Zibi said that the president’s departure would cause soul-searching among South African business and labour groups that believed in his ability to renew the ANC.
“They have avoided imagining a future where the ANC is not the centre of national consensus,” he added. “They are terribly ill-prepared for what comes next.”
In particular, Phala Phala has barely registered with the poorest South Africans who are more preoccupied with petty corruption in the ANC’s heartlands.
“What this shows, and is quite terrifying to South Africans, is that the ANC is incredibly damaged,” Mbete said. With Ramaphosa’s fate in limbo, “what’s deeply frustrating and sad is that South Africa and its issues are going to take a back seat to the machinations of the ANC”.