By Fred Khumalo
‘Haggard’ was the word that came to mind when I saw President Cyril Ramaphosa walk into the Imbizo Media Centre in Parliament in Cape Town, where journalists from different parts of the world were waiting for him on Friday.
The pouches under his eyes bore testimony to sleeplessness and worry.
His suit and shoes did him no credit. The shoes could have done with a lick of polish. His outfit could have belonged to an overworked and underpaid lower-echelon public servant.
Maybe this almost dishevelled demeanour was a public relations ploy to make him look like an ordinary Sipho down the street, a chap who could not be associated with $4 million stuffed inside couch cushions; someone who woke up every day, rolled up his sleeves and worked for you; someone you could trust.
Even in the presence of his huge entourage, which included Minister in the Presidency Mondli Gungubele and the president’s new spokesperson, the unflappable Vincent Magwenya, Ramaphosa cut a lonely figure of someone in desperate need of friendship and sympathy.
However, the milk of human kindness sloshing inside those watching him simply evaporated under the intense heat of the questions and associated suspicions hovering above his head.
Did he? How could he? Was he any better than his predecessor in the morality and ethical stakes? Was he a victim of a political conspiracy?
Magwenya apologised on behalf of the president, who was two hours and 42 minutes late for the briefing – through no fault of his own, of course.Instead of reporting the crime, Ramaphosa allegedly instructed the head of his presidential protection unit, Major General Wally Rhoode, to find the criminals, retrieve the money and put the matter under wraps
His earlier session in the National Assembly, where opposition parties tore into him, calling for his resignation in the face of the so-called Farmgate scandal, had gone beyond the allocated time. This had been exacerbated by the EFF pulling out its familiar playbook and giving him the ol’ Jacob Zuma treatment, something that led to the suspension of the sitting.
So there were no opening remarks on his part. We got down to the business of asking questions.
The questions, posed in different permutations by different journalists, included:
. Why had he kept so much money (estimated to be between $4 million and $8 million) at one of his establishments? Was it not against the law?;
. Had he had a hand in the alleged kidnapping of the suspects implicated in the theft of the cash from the farm?
. How would he regain the confidence of the business community in light of the Farmgate scandal?;
. Why had he not reported the robbery immediately to the police, rather than waiting until Arthur Fraser’s exposé?; and
. The timing of the suspension of Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane, who had publicly declared that she would be investigating the alleged robbery on the farm, had rattled many people. By taking tough action against her, was Ramaphosa sending a message to his detractors at the centre of the Farmgate investigation?
To almost all these questions, there was no categorical denial or confirmation. Instead, there was the simple response: “There is due process under way.”
What we know, though, from both Fraser’s statement and our own private investigations – as reported in City Press last week – is that Imanuwela David (37), a Namibian national who also has South African citizenship, was in a relationship with a domestic worker on Ramaphosa’s Phala Phala game farm in Limpopo.
It was she who alerted David to the presence of the money on the farm. The cash, according to the domestic worker, was stuffed inside a couch.
For the sake of accuracy, Fraser, in his statement, never mentioned couch cushions; he merely said the money had been hidden in furniture.
David then organised the robbery with his accomplices in the Cyferskyl informal settlement, which is predominantly inhabited by Namibians.
The robbery took place on February 9 2020, after which David travelled to Cape Town, where he lived the high life.
At the time of the theft, $4 million was the equivalent of R60.2 million.
Instead of reporting the crime, Ramaphosa allegedly instructed the head of his presidential protection unit, Major General Wally Rhoode, to find the criminals, retrieve the money and put the matter under wraps.
In Fraser’s version, Rhoode and his team kidnapped suspects, interrogated them and paid them R150 000 each to keep quiet about the matter.
Ramaphosa refused to answer any of these allegations at the media engagement on Friday.
The only time he offered a firm answer with regard to the scandal was when he was asked whether he would be prepared to step aside, should he be criminally charged.Fraser is firmly in the other camp. He is, after all, the man who – as erstwhile commissioner of correctional services (a position he assumed after Ramaphosa dropped him as spy boss) – authorised the early release of former president Jacob Zuma from jail in September on medical parole
Yes, he said, he would fall in line with the ANC’s step-aside rule. His radical economic transformation faction opponents, who have been gloating since the Farmgate story broke, are opposed to the rule, which prohibits leaders who face criminal charges from remaining leaders in the ANC until they were cleared.
Should Ramaphosa live up to his word, the field at the ANC electoral conference in December would be open to the likes of David Mabuza, Zweli Mkhize and Ace Magashule to vie for leadership. In the case of Magashule, it would be to seek re-election. For Mkhize and Mabuza, it would be to run for the top office.
Magashule has criminal charges pending against him, so he would not be eligible to contest the election. Mkhize has a huge cloud hanging over him and his candidacy could be stillborn, should the serious allegations against him culminate in a criminal charge.
However, as earlier mentioned, they fall into the section of the ANC that gives short shrift to the step-aside rule, and they might well contest it.
If he were to challenge them, Ramaphosa would have to climb down from his ethical perch and contest the same step-aside rule he advocates. Messy.
How did we get here, though? When Ramaphosa assumed office in 2018, given his long-established relationships with captains of business, he was hailed as someone who would not raid state coffers – not least because he had his own money.
He publicly committed himself to a spirited fight against corruption. Within the ANC, he endorsed the step-aside rule. This took care of Magashule and others facing criminal charges. It also sent a message to the general membership of the ANC that there was a new sheriff in town who was determined to set the embattled organisation on the path to renewal.
That renewal would be guided by the ANC’s rededication to its own lofty ideals of transparency, accountability and fighting corruption within both the public and private sectors.
Ramaphosa’s advocacy of ethical behaviour also seemed to have kept the mysterious but much-feared Mabuza in check. He seemed to be staying in his lane.While publicly mounting a campaign against corruption and graft, back at the ranch (literally), he was breaking the law by keeping illegal foreign currency and allegedly trying to defeat the ends of justice by bribing criminal suspects. Even if Ramaphosa rides out the storm and is not criminally charged, he has put wind in the sails of his nemeses – and he has them in legions
Then came this.
It would be naïve to ignore the fact that Fraser’s exposé might be part of the factional fights within the ANC; that he has been used to undermine Ramaphosa in the hope of snuffing him out of the race.
Fraser is firmly in the other camp. He is, after all, the man who – as erstwhile commissioner of correctional services (a position he assumed after Ramaphosa dropped him as spy boss) – authorised the early release of former president Jacob Zuma from jail in September on medical parole.
Apart from the clear political motive in the Fraser gambit, there is also self-interest at play: the final report from the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, due for release this month, will enumerate damning findings against the State Security Agency under Fraser’s leadership.
The report could recommend the criminal prosecution of Fraser – so his actions in Farmgate might be a pre-emptive strike, or a warning shot: “If you mess with me, I’ll spill even more beans.”
Ramaphosa’s Phala Phala farm in the Waterberg, Limpopo, has been in operation since 2010.
In his last declaration of business interests in 2017, he did not mention Phala Phala specifically.
This is also not Phala Phala’s first brush with controversy. In November 2020, animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals claimed to have conducted an undercover investigation that confirmed that wild animals were being bred on the farm specifically to be killed for trophies.
Ramaphosa denied having a stake in the trophy-hunting industry.
“Phala Phala’s wildlife breeding and management activities comply with the best ethical and lawful practice in the sector,” he said at the time.
Still, no matter which way you look at it, it was silly of him to have kept so much cash on his farm, and he may well have broken the law.
First of all, the Financial Intelligence Centre Act states that all cash transactions involving R25 000 or more must be reported to the Financial Intelligence Centre “no later than two days” after such a transaction has taken place.
Both the SA Revenue Service and the SA Reserve Bank have kept mum on whether the money was declared to them, or whether he has broken any law.
Legal matters aside, though, the whole saga leaves a sour taste in the mouth.He has debased himself to the South African public, a large section of whom had pinned their hopes on him for moral and ethical leadership
The man who ousted a clearly corrupt Zuma will now be remembered as the man who spoke through both sides of his mouth.
While publicly mounting a campaign against corruption and graft, back at the ranch (literally), he was breaking the law by keeping illegal foreign currency and allegedly trying to defeat the ends of justice by bribing criminal suspects.
Even if Ramaphosa rides out the storm and is not criminally charged, he has put wind in the sails of his nemeses – and he has them in legions.
This saga has helped normalise criminality. And it sends to the public a message that is bitter to swallow: even the president is not clean.
No matter how many press statements he issues after this, the whiff of scandal will remain with him.
In a moment of stupidity – some would say arrogance – Ramaphosa has done his legacy great damage. He has undermined his commitment to anticorruption, transparency and accountability.
He has debased himself to the South African public, a large section of whom had pinned their hopes on him for moral and ethical leadership.
Fred Khumalo is City Press Deputy News Editor: Opinion and Analysis