On the streets where Cyril Ramaphosa grew up in Johannesburg’s largest township, Edward Twala voices his support for the South African president, under fire over a mysterious theft of cash from his private game farm.
“Of all the presidents I’ve seen since Nelson Mandela, I don’t think that there has been anyone better than Cyril. He must stay,” said the 56-year-old owner of a car repair shop in Soweto’s Chiawelo area.
A report published last week accused Ramaphosa of abuse of power after the theft two years ago that he failed to properly report to authorities, triggering the biggest crisis yet for his five-year presidency.
After considering resignation, Ramaphosa is now taking legal action to overturn the report that said he may have broken the law and cast doubt on his explanation that the cash came from a sale of buffalo to a Sudanese businessman.
Twala blames the scandal on a backlash in the ruling African National Congress party over the battle Ramaphosa has fought against corruption since he replaced Jacob Zuma. “They want to remove him because they know he is fighting them,” he said. The president may have had $580,000 in cash stuffed inside a sofa on his Phala Phala reserve, but Twala said: “it is his own money.”
His words reflect grassroots support for Ramaphosa and offer one reason why the president won the backing of the ANC ahead of a crucial vote on impeachment, next week’s contest for party leader and 2024 elections the party is in danger of losing.
Analysts said that the ANC fears losing its biggest electoral asset and a consensus-builder in a party riven by schism.
As a one-time protégé of Mandela, Ramaphosa is “the last of the figures that could unite the ANC”, and none of his likeliest successors would have the immediate clout to keep the ANC’s factions together, said William Gumede, executive chair of Democracy Works, a civic foundation.
Contenders to replace Ramaphosa also had their own motives to support him, analysts said.
If Ramaphosa steps down because of the report, Zweli Mkhize, Ramaphosa’s sole official rival in next week’s leadership election, might also be pressured to step down, analysts said. A former health minister, he is under investigation over allegations that his family benefited from a coronavirus-era PR contract. He denies wrongdoing.
Paul Mashatile, the ANC’s treasurer general who is widely tipped as a future president, can still run for deputy president and emerge as a frontrunner if Ramaphosa is forced to quit later.
As rivals bide their time, Ramaphosa’s survival is now a hostage to fortune over further revelations about Phala Phala. South Africa has tight exchange controls that require the swift disclosure of foreign currency and there are questions over the source of the stolen money.
Hazim Mustafa, the Sudanese buyer of the buffalo, told Sky News this week that he declared the cash, a sum that he said was “nothing for a businessman like me”, at Johannesburg’s airport in 2019. He declined to present any evidence, while confirming he is expecting a refund on the cattle, which were never delivered.
Last week’s report concluded that an ongoing investigation by the South African Reserve Bank “suggests strongly that it had no records of this money entering this country or being reported as having been received” by Ramaphosa.
“Based on the panel report, [the South African Reserve Bank] are going to have to fine him,” said Peter Attard Montalto, head of capital markets research at consultants Intellidex. “The SARB never gives permission to hold that size of dollar cash onshore.”
“Fundamentally, his story still does not add up, and we should not lose sight of that.” Further findings over Phala Phala could reignite the pressure. “That is the risk, and it is deeply unpredictable.”
Ramaphosa’s prevarication — at one stage, he had drafted a resignation, later only for his allies to convince him to pursue the matter in the courts — could yet cost him dearly.
“The man went Awol for four days . . . we are leaderless,” Julius Malema, a former ANC politician and leader of the leftist Economic Freedom Fighters party, said this week. He also predicted that Ramaphosa has only gained a brief reprieve: “Once such a vacuum arises, we are going to be led by thugs.”
Chiawelo is a natural heartland for Ramaphosa, who rose from humble beginnings as a policeman’s son through the ANC’s ranks, and then built his business as the economy opened up after apartheid.
The Chiawelo ANC branch joined thousands of others this year in nominating Ramaphosa for re-election as party leader. Many residents know him and his relatives personally.
Even Twala is unsure what the other investigations into Phala Phala might bring. But he worries more about the crime and blackouts that plague everyday township life. “We’re scared in our own homes . . . we want an honest person” who can solve these problems as president.
Others too want the president to say more. “We need the president to come clean,” said Gregory Masoleng, a jobless 54-year-old in Chiawelo. “How did the money come into South Africa? We need to know about that. No excuses.”