CAPE TOWN – South African President Cyril Ramaphosa could face criminal charges and is already facing calls to step down over claims that he tried to cover up the theft of millions of dollars in U.S. currency that was hidden inside furniture at his game farm.
The astonishing allegations made by the former head of South Africa's intelligence agency also include that the suspects in the robbery two years ago were tracked down and kidnapped by Ramaphosa's presidential protection unit, interrogated on his property, and bribed to keep quiet about the existence of the cash, and nothing was reported to the police.
The accusations badly undermine Ramaphosa's reputation as a leader dedicated to fighting corruption. He became president in 2018 on promises to clean up government and his graft-tainted ruling party, the African National Congress, which is now a far cry from the days when it was widely respected and led by Nelson Mandela. The scandal, dubbed “farmgate” by the South African press, threatens to end Ramaphosa's presidency and destabilize Africa's most developed economy.
This is what we know so far about the scandal:
Former State Security Agency director Arthur Fraser walked into a Johannesburg police station on June 1 and laid a criminal complaint against Ramaphosa over the theft of what Fraser says was more than $4 million in cash that was concealed on the ranch. It sent the country's media into a frenzy. Fraser alleged in an affidavit that Ramaphosa and others were guilty of money laundering and breaching the country's foreign currency control laws over the hidden money.
Fraser also claimed that the suspects in the robbery were kidnapped and bribed to stay silent, and Ramaphosa hid the incident from the police and tax authorities. Fraser said he submitted “supporting evidence” to the police that included photographs, video footage and bank account details. He said the robbery happened in February 2020.
THE SPY BOSS
The fact that it was Fraser who made the allegations against Ramaphosa suggests they are politically motivated. Fraser is a well-known loyalist to former President Jacob Zuma and a faction of the ANC that wants Ramaphosa out. Zuma, Ramaphosa's predecessor, was forced to resign as president in 2018 and is now on trial for corruption. That trial is seen as an indicator of Ramaphosa's commitment to confront corruption at the highest level.
Fraser was also in the news headlines last year when, as head of the department of corrections, he granted Zuma medical parole from prison against the recommendation of a parole board which advised that Zuma should not be released early after he was convicted of contempt of court. Fraser was South Africa's spy boss under Zuma from 2016 to 2018.
The allegations have forced the 69-year-old Ramaphosa to fight for his political life. He has admitted the robbery did happen at his Phala Phala ranch in the northern province of Limpopo but said it was reported to the head of his protection unit, which falls under the South African Police Services. He said the money came from the sale of game animals at the farm and he was “not involved in any criminal conduct.”
Those answers have been seen as woefully inadequate, though. Ramaphosa has refused to say how much money was involved, why it was stashed at his ranch, and if the foreign currency was declared to authorities. He sidestepped a plethora of questions over the scandal at a 90-minute press conference at Parliament last week, where he cut an exhausted, under-pressure figure. He said he wouldn't comment before a police investigation.
“I'd like the due process to unfold in this matter,” Ramaphosa said.
Ramaphosa was shouted down in Parliament on two consecutive days last week by lawmakers from the Economic Freedom Fighters, the second biggest opposition party. The EFF has since upped its criticism by demanding Ramaphosa resign over the scandal. Two other opposition parties applied this week for Parliament to put Ramaphosa on “sabbatical leave” and start a parliamentary investigation. That was rejected by the speaker of Parliament.
No criminal charges against Ramaphosa have been announced by the police, although a unit that deals with serious and high-profile crimes is investigating Fraser's allegations. Ramaphosa has said he will voluntarily appear before an ANC integrity committee, which has the power to suspend him as party leader. No date has yet been set for Ramaphosa to appear before the committee.
The timing of the scandal is terrible for Ramaphosa, who already faces daunting political challenges and a critical party election in December that will decide if he stays on as leader of the ANC and, effectively, if he remains president.
AP writer Mogomotsi Magome in Johannesburg contributed to this story.