JOHANNESBURG – South Africa’s president might lose his job, and his reputation as a corruption fighter, as he faces possible impeachment over claims that he tried to cover up the theft of millions of dollars stashed inside a couch on his farm.
The allegations brought by a political rival have led to a damning parliamentary report and pressure from the political opposition and some in the ruling party for President Cyril Ramaphosa to resign. Police have not announced any criminal charges.
Africa’s most developed country is waiting for the president to speak publicly on the latest developments as the ruling African National Congress party's highest decision-making body discusses next steps. Lawmakers are expected to debate the parliamentary report Tuesday.
Here is what's known about the scandal:
Former State Security Agency director Arthur Fraser laid a criminal complaint against Ramaphosa in June over the theft in 2020 of what Fraser said was more than $4 million in cash hidden at the president’s ranch. Fraser, an ally of the president’s political rival and predecessor, Jacob Zuma, alleged that Ramaphosa and others were guilty of money laundering and breaching the country’s foreign currency control laws, and that Ramaphosa hid the incident from the police and tax authorities.
This week, a parliamentary panel's report found the president may have breached anti-corruption laws. It raised questions about the source of the money and why it wasn’t disclosed to financial authorities, and cited a potential conflict between the president’s business and official interests.
Opposition parties and Ramaphosa’s critics in the African National Congress called for him to step down. Ramaphosa, 70, planned to seek reelection as the party's leader during an ANC conference this month, which would allow to run again for South Africa’s presidency in 2024.
WHAT DOES THE PRESIDENT SAY?
Ramaphosa has denied wrongdoing, saying the stolen money was proceeds from the sale of animals at his farm and that he was “not involved in any criminal conduct.” But the parliamentary report questioned his explanation, asking why the animals remained at the farm more than two years later.
The report also said a central bank investigation suggested there were no records of the dollars entering the country. It said Ramaphosa put himself into a situation of conflict of interest and that evidence “establishes that the president may be guilty of a serious violation of certain sections of the constitution.”
As speculation soared Thursday about a possible resignation announcement, Ramaphosa’s spokesperson told reporters the president was still processing the report. “We are in an unprecedented and extraordinary moment as a constitutional democracy as a result of the report, and therefore whatever decision the president takes, it has to be informed by the best interest of the country. That decision cannot be rushed,” the spokesperson, Vincent Magwenya, said.
Ramaphosa, a wealthy businessman, was Nelson Mandela’s preferred successor as president. When he took office in 2018 following the resignation of the scandal-plagued Zuma, many South Africans took heart in Ramaphosa’s focus on fighting corruption within the ANC, which had drifted far from its widely respected era under Mandela.
HOW DOES A DIVIDED PARTY PLAY A ROLE?
The drama around Zuma and corruption allegations badly split the ANC. The man who brought the allegations against Ramaphosa, Fraser, is a well-known loyalist to Zuma and a faction of the ANC that wants Ramaphosa out.
The ANC has a strong role in the president’s fate. Presidents in South Africa are not directly elected by the people, who instead vote for a political party. Lawmakers then elect the president. The leading opposition party in parliament, the Democratic Alliance, is pushing to hold elections immediately instead of in 2024.
Ramaphosa has no chance at winning a second term without the backing of the ruling party. Its national executive committee has the powers to force the president to resign, and it did so with Zuma and former president Thabo Mbeki after both fell out of favor.
Ramaphosa still has support among some members of the party's national executive committee. ANC chair Gwede Mantashe told a local broadcaster Friday that the president was not thinking of resigning. Whether Ramaphosa has enough support to survive impeachment in parliament is yet to be seen. Removing a president from office needs the votes of at least two-thirds of the members of the National Assembly.