THE details are as garish as any South African true crime story: wads of cash stuffed into sofa cushions on a rich man’s remote game farm, easy pickings for thieves who disappear in an apparent cover-up until an embittered spymaster exposes the sordid saga.
June 22, 2022
4 min read
Ex-spymaster’s claims threaten Ramaphosa’s image as SA’s reformer
SA President, Cyril Ramaphosa
- Complaint on hidden theft at farm comes as president pledges to combat corruption
- Ramaphosa has denied any wrongdoing
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The scandal is, however, playing out not on Netflix, but at the heart of the presidency of Cyril Ramaphosa — the man who pledged to clean up after his predecessor’s corruption but is now facing allegations of wrongdoing and the biggest blow to his image since he took office in 2018.
Under South African law, there are strict limitations on the handling of foreign currency. In a police complaint filed this month, former spy boss Arthur Fraser, an ally of former president Jacob Zuma, said Ramaphosa, a tycoon and cattle herder, hid the theft of up to $4mn from his home.
The money related to sales of game, Ramaphosa said. Zuma’s allies say the suspected thieves were kidnapped and interrogated by Ramaphosa’s security staff rather than face a proper police investigation.
Ramaphosa has admitted a robbery took place in 2020 but said he reported the theft. He has denied any wrongdoing and disputed the $4mn figure but has yet to confirm how much was stolen.
Last week, he said” “Those who stand to lose the most from the fight against corruption [are] resorting to dirty tricks and intimidation in a bid to get us to back down”.
The police are now investigating the claim. The scandal comes at a critical moment for the president.
With the ruling African National Congress set to choose its leader this year, ahead of South Africa’s national elections in 2024, the scandal “is really chipping away at [Ramaphosa’s] credibility as the president”, said Sithembile Mbete, a political scientist at the University of Pretoria.
While he is still tipped to win re-election, the allegations come on top of economic stagnation and rolling power blackouts and make it increasingly likely the party will lose its majority in 2024 polls for the first time in 30 years, say analysts.
Ramaphosa “was seen as legitimate not because of the party, but because he was seen in himself as a trustworthy person . . . so much of his presidency has been dedicated to rehabilitation of the justice system”, Mbete said.
The most damaging part of this scandal, Mbete said, were the allegations that the farm robbery was investigated outside proper channels.
The president has said that he alerted his VIP protection unit about the robbery, but in its 2020 annual report, the South African police reported no VIP security breaches, a sign that the investigation was not followed up.
The country’s specialist Hawks anti-corruption squad began a probe this month.
“The optics of this are not good at all, for the president as an individual, nor good for transparency in terms of the conduct of senior leaders,” said Karam Singh, head of Corruption Watch, a non-profit group.
“The red flags here are large sums of cash, that were unbanked, and in foreign currency,” — and, like America’s Watergate scandal, the apparent cover-up looks worse than the alleged crime, he added.
The scandal speaks to the huge divisions within the ANC between supporters of Ramaphosa and Zuma, in part over the battle to tackle corruption.
In recent weeks, Ramaphosa has scored some of his biggest successes in this fight.
Law enforcement authorities in the United Arab Emirates arrested two members of the Gupta family who are accused of looting the South African state with the aid of Zuma.
The final chapter of the report on this scandal, the biggest in the country since the end of apartheid, is due to be published this week.
The Guptas’ arrest has only intensified the ill feeling over the clean-up.
“The side that he [ Ramaphosa] was trying to unify with are highly compromised in terms of state capture . . . his agenda is an existential threat to them,” Mbete said.
Fraser’s spy background and his apparent access to privileged security data also point to the hand of South Africa’s “deeply, deeply compromised” state security agency, Mbete said.
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Under Zuma, the state security agency became a “private resource to serve the political and personal interests of particular individuals”, an official probe previously found.
Fraser was a key player in this mismanagement of the agency, according to witnesses who testified at the state capture inquiry. He has denied wrongdoing and has accused witnesses of perjury. Efforts to reform the agency — put in place after riots last year in response to Zuma’s jailing for contempt of court — have been slow.
“Whatever is being done to fix the agency right now, the consequences of compromising the security services are going to be with us for quite some time,” Mbete said.
It is a delicate moment for the uprooting of systematic corruption overall, Singh said.
“This president has moved the dial toward greater accountability, greater transparency, and greater good governance,” he said. Despite the progress so far, this scandal shows that it could still go into reverse, Singh said.
“That’s the worry for South Africa — that it is a perpetual crossroads. That we still haven’t turned the corner.” Financial Times