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Furore over a theft bedevils the ANC

‘The ANC and the ANC government should be ashamed that this happened under their watch.’
President Cyril Ramaphosa. Image: Bloomberg

The party that has governed South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994 is being buffeted by a scandal implicating its leader, President Cyril Ramaphosa, setting back its efforts to reclaim support lost during nine years of misrule by his predecessor Jacob Zuma.

The opposition wants Ramaphosa to explain the theft of foreign currency from his game farm two years ago, a crime that only came to light this month and is now being investigated by a special police investigative unit. The furore, which the president has done little to dampen, is the latest blow for the African National Congress, which saw its share of the vote dip below 50% in last year’s municipal elections and fears losing its parliamentary majority in 2024.

The prospect of Africa’s most industrialised nation being led by a wobbly alliance would be a red flag for investors, as it’s unclear which partners the ANC would court, what policy concessions it would make and which key posts it would cede. There’s also a possibility that Ramaphosa, a 69-year-old lawyer and one of the richest Black South Africans, could be forced to quit and be replaced by any one of a number of tainted officials with less business-friendly leanings.

“The allegations against Ramaphosa are very bad for the ANC and send a message that all of its leaders are compromised,” said Ralph Mathekga, an independent political analyst and author of ‘The ANC’s Last Decade’. “I see them being forced into a coalition nationally and being forced to learn the principle of co-governance. We are in for a very unstable government.”

Arthur Fraser, South Africa’s former spy chief and a close Zuma ally, filed criminal charges against Ramaphosa last week, accusing him of concealing the theft of more than $4 million from his farm in the northern Limpopo province in 2020 and alleging that the suspects were illegally detained and interrogated. The president confirmed the robbery took place, said he reported the matter and denied wrongdoing, but his reticence to discuss what transpired has spurred accusations by opposition parties that he broke the law.

The revelations have dominated newspaper headlines and social media ever since they broke and three senior ANC officials, who are Ramaphosa allies and who asked not to be identified because they aren’t authorised to comment, said they were very concerned he wouldn’t see out his term. Opinion polls previously showed the president was far more popular than his party and his leadership was a major factor why it continued to retain support.

With roots dating back to 1912, the ANC is Africa’s oldest political movement. Its carefully nurtured reputation as a party of the people that overthrew white-minority rule was shredded during Zuma’s tenure, which was marred by policy missteps, inappropriate appointments and the alleged theft of billions of dollars from state coffers. The ANC eventually forced him to step down in February 2018 and replaced him with Ramaphosa, who had won control of the party two months earlier and has identified the fight against graft as a top priority.

A judicial commission that’s spent four years investigating what’s become known locally as state capture has placed Zuma, the three Gupta brothers who were his friends and in business with his son, and top ANC officials at the centre of the malfeasance, and slated the party’s response to it.

“The ANC and the ANC government should be ashamed that this happened under their watch,” Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, who chaired the panel, said in a report. “Where were they? What were they doing? Were they aware of everything and lacked the courage to stop President Zuma and his friends, the Guptas, in what they were doing? Were they looking the other way?”

The Dubai police arrested two of the Gupta brothers this month after Interpol issued a notice requesting international assistance to hunt them down, and South Africa is seeking their extradition to stand trial. Even so, not a single senior politician has been successfully prosecuted in connection with the looting spree and a number of those implicated continue to occupy ANC and government posts, and have openly opposed Ramaphosa’s reform drive.

The ANC conceded it was in trouble even before Fraser dropped his bombshell. In a discussion document released ahead of a policy conference next month, the party acknowledged that it is facing an “existential crisis” with its ranks having been infiltrated by “opportunists and careerists” intent on accessing state power and resources, and that its standing among the electorate has been battered.

“Our back is against the wall. Something must be done to correct that situation,” Gwede Mantashe, the ANC’s chairman and national mines minister, told a party meeting in the southern town of Gqeberha. “Us servants of the ANC are arrogant, our egos can fill a house. That arrogance switches off all people in society who believe in the ANC.”

The ANC’s saving grace has been the absence of a strong alternative. The main opposition Democratic Alliance’s predominantly White leadership has struggled to gain traction in a country where 80% of the population is Black, and saw its share of the national vote slip to 20.8% in 2019, from 22.2% five years earlier. The Economic Freedom Fighters, an ANC offshoot that advocates for the nationalisation of land, banks and mines, grew its support to 10.8%, from 8.2%, over that period but has struggled to make inroads into rural areas.

Political realignment

“We are in a period of our polity being in a state of flux, which must necessarily result in a realignment of political forces,” former President Kgalema Motlanthe, a senior ANC member, said on a webcast hosted by the Centre for Development and Enterprise. “I don’t think the current political parties represent the future. I think the kind of formations that are going to take this country forward” have yet to emerge, he said.

Ramaphosa, who is likely to seek re-election as ANC leader in December, said the ANC must tackle the “ill-discipline, factionalism and other deviant tendencies” and is adamant it can still redeem itself and win the 2024 vote.

“The time has come for us comrades to develop more explicit rules about the type of conduct that disqualifies a person from becoming a leader of this movement,” he told the gathering in Gqeberha.

Whether the president himself falls in that category will become clearer as more details about the robbery on his farm emerge.

© 2022 Bloomberg

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