South Africa’s ruling African National Congress is set to meet on Friday to decide Cyril Ramaphosa’s fate, with his presidency hanging by a thread in the wake of a damning parliamentary report into a scandal over the theft of bundles of cash from his private game farm.
The ANC’s national executive committee will debate Ramaphosa’s future after his presidency was thrown into turmoil late on Wednesday by findings that he might have broken the law over the 2020 heist at his Phala Phala reserve. The report concluded that he should be investigated for possible impeachment, prompting calls from the main opposition parties for him to step down.
Ramaphosa’s authority appeared to ebb away on Thursday, fuelling speculation he was about to quit. He was considering all his options and would not be “rushed” into a decision, his spokesperson said late on Thursday.
Yet cancelled public appearances and long consultations with the ANC all point to a grave moment for Ramaphosa’s presidency, just weeks before he was widely tipped to win re-election as the party’s leader.
“It’s very, very difficult for him to survive,” said William Gumede, chair of the Democracy Works civic foundation. Ramaphosa would need to fight to survive but “he’s not really a focused fighter . . . that’s been the frustration of his presidency.”
The scandal might have fatally tarnished the image of the unionist turned businessman who took over the ANC’s leadership five years ago on a mission to clean up systemic corruption that grew rife under Jacob Zuma.
Ramaphosa has always denied wrongdoing over the Phala Phala robbery, which was revealed two years later when a former head of South Africa’s spy agency under Zuma accused the presidency of covering up a probe into the theft.
A panel led by a former chief justice concluded in the report, released on Wednesday, that “there was a deliberate decision to keep the investigation secret” and that more cash appeared to have been stored at the farm than the $580,000 that was stolen.
The fallout also represents a possible death knell for the ANC ahead of elections in 2024, because Ramaphosa was widely seen as more popular than his divided party, which has governed since 1994.
Allies of Ramaphosa said he could attempt a legal review of the panel’s findings but this would be uncertain of success.
Lawmakers are due to vote early next week on whether to accept the report and set up an impeachment committee with full powers of investigation. Opposition parties have called for Ramaphosa to resign or face impeachment.
The ANC is under pressure to vote in favour of the report given its damning findings, which could make Ramaphosa’s presidency untenable even if he survived the next few days, analysts said.
“It’s a reflection of how poor his management of the Phala Phala scandal has been from the beginning,” said Lawson Naidoo, executive secretary of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution, a civil society group. “He’s been the author of his own demise in many ways.”
David Mabuza, Ramaphosa’s deputy, would be first in line to take over as acting president if he resigns. South Africa’s parliament would have to elect a new president within 30 days.
The ANC’s leadership contest would take place in the middle of this month. Ramaphosa’s only rival had been Zweli Mkhize, a former health minister under investigation in a graft scandal, but other challengers would be expected to emerge.