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Cyril Ramaphosa’s ANC KZN headache

President to tell ANC integrity commission that he is not in charge of the day-to-day running of his farm

President Cyril Ramaphosa plans to address the ANC’s KwaZulu-Natal conference on Sunday, putting his presidency on the line in a province that still largely sympathises with former president Jacob Zuma.

A hostile reception for Ramaphosa could signal to his adversaries that he is vulnerable to a party leadership challenge when the ANC conference takes place in December. But if he is well received, which his office is counting on, it could be rare good news for him.

His presidency is faltering, its failures spelt out in stark terms by former president Thabo Mbeki at the memorial service for ANC deputy secretary general Jessie Duarte. He is also battling to restore his image over the Phala Phala debacle.

The extent of Ramaphosa’s gamble on the backing of KZN was underlined by the reception  received by one the ANC’s national officials Paul Mashatile when he opened the conference at Durban’s Olive Convention Centre on Friday. Some of the more than 1,600 delegates insisted on singing “wenzen’ uZuma” [what has Zuma done?] repeatedly as the party’s acting secretary general was about to take to the podium – voicing their displeasure at how he handled Zuma’s ousting.

The head of the presidency at Luthuli House, ANC national executive committee member Sibongile Besani, late Saturday afternoon confirmed Ramaphosa would be flying to Durban to address the hotly contested conference.

As far as I know so far, the president will come [to the conference]

“As far as I know so far, the president will come [to the conference]. We don’t expect the president to receive a hostile reception. You can see the mood of the conference is quite cordial, exciting. People are expressing their views, so we’re hoping for a positive response. We’re positive about members of the ANC,” he said. 

Ramaphosa’s attendance has been the subject of furious speculation after indications that most delegates attending the event sympathise with Zuma. 

Some Zuma supporters – including former Luthuli House staffer Carl Niehaus – campaigned on Saturday for delegates to prevent Ramaphosa from addressing the gathering.

Ramaphosa’s popularity has taken a knock following allegations by former spy boss Arthur Fraser that he concealed a burglary at his home on game farm Phala Phala, where an alleged amount of $4m was stolen, and that he paid the culprits to ensure their silence.

The scandal has weakened Ramaphosa in the year in which he is seeking re-election as ANC president. Some of the party’s national executive committee members and veterans have called for him to step aside while the Hawks investigate a case that Fraser opened.

Although Ramaphosa has so far received endorsements for a second term from the newly elected chairpersons of the provinces where he has closed conferences – Mpumalanga, Eastern Cape and Limpopo – it is unlikely he will receive a nod from the hostile KZN crowd.

Instead, the province is expected to be fertile ground for ANC leaders who want to launch their election campaigns, especially former health minister Zweli Mkhize who has made his availability for a top six position known.

Regional leaders the Sunday Times spoke to credited Mkhize with putting together a list of leaders to challenge premier Sihle Zikalala’s slate.

Mkhize declined to comment on Saturday.

Ramaphosa will face the KZN crowd at a time when he is said to be preparing a Phala Phala defence that blames the employees running the farm on his behalf for keeping a stash of foreign currency on the premises. 

Last week, presidential protection unit head maj-gen Wally Rhoode, whom Ramaphosa allegedly tasked to deal with the February 2020 burglary, was removed from his position.

ANC insiders said although no date had yet been set for the president to appear before the party’s integrity commission, he would tell it he was not in charge of the farm’s day-to-day operations.

An ANC leader close to the president told the Sunday Times he would say that Phala Phala workers failed to follow the normal banking processes, leading to “millions” piling up at the farm.

In particular, he would tell the body that farm manager Hendrik von Wielligh did not follow normal protocols on how money made by the farm – from sales of rare cattle and game – was handled. This will be an attempt by Ramaphosa to clear himself of any wrongdoing with the manager taking the fall.

Obviously he can’t be happy with what these allegations are doing [to him], but he did nothing wrong. We all know that

Party leader close to the president

“Obviously he can’t be happy with what these allegations are doing [to him], but he did nothing wrong. We all know that,” said a party leader close to the president.

“Where he was wrong of course is that at the farm they did not do what they were supposed to do in terms of banking the money. You know he does have people working at the farm – there’s a farm manager and there are just many people that work there. I mean you honestly don’t expect the President to be checking such things.

“But the thing is the more you try to explain the more the media just says its own thing and tries to distort. So sometimes you just leave them and make sure that you put systems in place to explain yourself without having to come back and explain yourself over and over again.”

Another insider confirmed that Ramaphosa will take the ANC ethics body into his confidence.

This insider however said Ramaphosa was avoiding speaking publicly on the matter to prevent a repeat of the Bosasa donations scandal.

In that scandal, Ramaphosa denied in parliament that he received a R500,000 donation from the company for his election campaign, at a time when he did not know all the facts. He later had to come back to correct this after learning that Bosasa did in fact donate to his campaign.

“He is not avoiding accountability. He has to play it safe because you don’t want a repeat of Bosasa. Remember how that just opened a can of worms because he spoke before getting all the details,” the insider said.

“The information will come to the public soon but through proper channels having followed proper processes. From our side, we do not think there is anything untoward that the president has done but everything will be revealed. For now, it’s better to be on the safe side and not say much,” he said.

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