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D ecember in South Africa is always an eventful month but December 2022 is testing the country’s limits. On December 1, the country was reeling after the parliament’s Section 89 committee submitted its report, assessing whether President Cyril Ramaphosa had committed any serious offences, to the speaker of the National Assembly the day prior. The committee, chaired by retired chief justice Sandile Ngcobo, was tasked with interrogating “the information that members of the assembly had submitted” to the commission in relation with the Phala Phala scandal. The scandal relates to the theft of USD 4 million, concealed in furniture, at Ramaphosa’s farm. The theft had not been reported and the committee was tasked with ascertaining whether Ramaphosa’s failure to report the theft warranted impeachment inquiry.

On 1 June, former director-general of State Security Arthur Fraser submitted an affidavit about the robbery which took place in February 2020 at the president’s farm on the outskirts of Bela-Bela, Limpopo province. Fraser’s submission included images and makes mention of video evidence. Fraser claims that a farm employee discovered the money and colluded with criminals to perpetrate the crime. The former intelligence official claims, “The president concealed the crime from the SAPS (South African Police Service) and / or SARS (South African Revenue Services) and thereafter paid the culprits for their silence.” According to Fraser, the president’s alleged conduct constitutes a breach of the Prevention of Organised Crime Act (POCA) – South Africa’s primary legislation addressing a range of offences relating to organised crime including money laundering.

President Cyril Ramaphosa happily poses with his Ankole cattle. Image sourced from: Sowetan Live.

The Presidency issued a statement on 2 June confirming that “a robbery took place at the president’s farm in Limpopo on or around 9 February 2020 in which proceeds from the sale of game were stolen.” The statement, however, refuted Fraser’s claims of criminal conduct.  The Section 89 committee was subsequently tasked with ascertaining whether “sufficient evidence exists to show that the President has committed a serious violation of the Constitution or the law, or a serious misconduct.” The committee determined that there is prima facie evidence that Ramaphosa violated anti-corruption laws.

Ramaphosa was widely speculated to be ready to resign days after the report’s submission but was pulled back from the brink by loyalists. He is now challenging the report’s findings at the Constitutional Court and ruling African National Congress (ANC) members rallied around him and voted against the adoption of the report in parliament. This was all within the first six days of December. And on the seventh, the country was forced to rest as state-owned power utility Eskom announced an indefinite escalation in rolling power blackouts – resulting in some households accessing only three hours of power during waking hours. A week later, Eskom CEO – the 11th in 10 years – resigned.

Residents move between car lights during rolling blackouts. (Photo: EPA / Nic Bothma) Image Sourced from: Daily Maverick

Another dawn

The hour is nigh, and the country will once again have a chance to see the mettle of the man. In addition to a bevy of pressing structural national challenges, Ramaphosa must make sure he’s won enough friends and influenced enough people to win re-election as party president this month. ANC delegates are converging on Nasrec, Gauteng province, between 16 and 20 December for the party’s national elective conference. Ramaphosa is up for re-election and will stand against former health minister, ANC treasurer general (2012-2017) and KwaZulu Natal Premier (2009-2013) Dr Zweli Mkhize. The deck was heavily stacked in the president’s favour coming into the race; Ramaphosa received 2,037 nominations from ANC branches while Mkhize came a distant second with 916 nominations. Notably, this announcement was made after the Phala Phala scandal.

Mkhize was lauded for steering the country through the Covid-19 pandemic. However, he also enters the race (his second attempt at the party presidency) with a stain of scandal. He was forced to resign as health minister in August 2021 following allegations that he and his family benefited from a controversial USD 10 million contract awarded to a company linked to his family. The Special Investigation Unit (SIU) investigated the so-called Digital Vibes scandal and found that Mkhize was guilty of “ distinct lack of oversight” over the contract and may have influenced its award and allegedly contravened the Public Finance Management Act. Although Mkhize was subsequently cleared by the parliamentary ethics committee, the matter was referred to the National Prosecuting Authority and sits at the High Court.

ANC President Cyril Ramaphosa. EPA-EFE/Cornell Tukiri. Image Sourced from: The Coversation

Ramaphosa stands a good chance of re-election at the party conference but this is not due to his strength as a candidate. Ramaphosa won his first term as party president in 2017 with the narrowest margin since the party’s founding in 1912. 110 years later and he’s in a strong position to win with a large majority. His team has carefully and systematically changed party structures, within the organisation’s rules, to improve his hand.

Over the past 18 months, Ramaphosa has led efforts to clean up the party’s branch structure. This process has resulted in 1,550 or roughly 27 percent of branches being disqualified from participating in the party conference. Additionally, a series of party provincial conferences took place throughout 2022 and Ramaphosa’s allies largely managed to wrestle control of important provincial executive structures from a rival faction – Radical Economic Transformation (RET). This significantly reduces the threats of upsets at the party elective conference but does not wholly remove it.

A surprise nomination from the floor or strong push for Mkhize, particularly from some branches in Gauteng, KwaZuluNatal and Mpumalanga is possible, but is unlikely to be galvanised by the RET faction. RET faction strongholds such as North West province and Free State are in disarray, which will weaken their ability to mobilise support against Ramaphosa at the national party conference.  The RET faction has operated in a rudderless fashion after the loss of its coalescing force – former president Jacob Zuma – as he battles his own corruption allegations and serves a contempt-of-court sentence.

President Cyril Ramaphosa and former President Zuma in Cape Town -ELMOND JIYANE/GCIS/EPA. Image sourced from: The Times

Into the night

Ramaphosa came into office under the banner of it being “a new dawn” after “nine wasted years” under Zuma. Ramaphosa has been in office since 2018 and during that time, the country’s “evil triplets” – poverty, inequality and unemployment – have grown. He was part of Zuma’s cabinet and his responsibilities included the Eskom war room, where he was tasked with overseeing the power utility’s turnaround. During Ramaphosa’s presidency Eskom has lurched from bad to worse. He placed significant political weight behind the Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, which shed light on some of the causes and extent of disfunction and maladministration in some quarters of the public sector. This whet the public’s appetite for justice but the country’s prosecutorial services are under-resourced and poorly capacitated to tackle the scale of the allegations.

Ramaphosa does not personally keep the lights on, investigate crimes or directly help those in abject poverty but the chief responsibility of Batho Pele (People First) – the principle that guides pubic sector service delivery in South Africa – lies with him.  The task, irrespective of the ideological approach to tackling it, is gargantuan. ANC delegates will be asking themselves whether Ramaphosa is the best person for the job, and importantly, for their individual interests.

The same will be true for voters choosing their preferred party in the upcoming national legislative election in 2024. The ANC’s performance in recent polls points to a strong likelihood of coalition politics and a national stage after the next legislative election in 2024. If the parties’ conduct at municipal level is a sign of things to come, policy gridlock will become the norm, deterring investment. The country’s credit ratings have slipped and should the Financial Action Task Force (FAFT) grey list the country in early 2023, neighbouring countries might be well on their way to the Fourth Industrial Revolution that the president so deeply desires to make manifest by the time the economy recovers.

The ANC has an effective mechanism to deal with under-preforming or disreputable leaders or those it deems to be disregarding the party consensus. No national president has completed his second term in office since the advent of democratic elections in 1994. Ramaphosa will be looking to change that. If he wins a second term as party president he will be well on his way but with no guarantee that he’ll make it to the end. South Africa has passed the infection point but the hope of a new dawn remains, as does expectation that the years will finally stop being wasted.