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South Africa: Phala Phala political thriller unlikely to end in impeachment of Ramaphosa

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Picture/Graphic: African News Agency (ANA)

By Kim Heller

Forty years ago, on 30 November 1982, Michael Jackson’s best-selling album of all time, Thriller was released worldwide. Thriller, with its winning tracks and captivating dance moves became the rapture and capture of the day, and the lifelong signature-tune of this musical legend. Today, the rhythm and beat of Michael Jackson is unmistakable, in the same way that the easy side-step of Cyril Ramaphosa has become the defining dance of the days of his life as South Africa’s President.

Wednesday, 30 November 2022, was a day when many in South Africa were anticipating thrills, spills, and chills as the independent panel report into the Phala Phala saga was released, to Parliamentary, earlier in the day, and made public in the late evening hours. The independent panel was established on the back of a motion by political party, African Transformation Movement (ATM) ATM that President had violated his Oath of Office by covering up the 2020 theft of millions of dollars from his Phala Phala farm.

The Phala Phala has been a diabolic political scandal for the Ramaphosa administration and with the world’s attention on this matter, it has brought both the ANC and the country into disrepute. International television station, Al Jareeza,reported how, ‘The alleged cover-up has tarnished the president’s reputation and overshadowed his bid for re-election at the helm of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party.”

The independent panel led by former Chief justice, Sandile Ngcobo, was appointed to establish whether there had been any wrongdoing by President Cyril Ramaphosa and whether he should face an impeachment inquiry.

Picture: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency (ANA) – Retired Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo at the South African Parliament in Cape Town where he presented the Section 89 report to The Speaker of Parliament Ms Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula and Secretary to Parliament Mr Xolile George.

On Wednesday, in a voluminous response, Ramaphosa, who was in Addis Ababa at the time of the Phala Phala robbery, claimed once again that he has “no personal knowledge regarding the theft itself”. The President went on to argue that he also had “no knowledge or suspicion and cannot reasonably be expected to have knowledge, of the perpetrators.”In his well fashioned style, Ramaphosa was super-quick in side-stepping blame and in scapegoating his head of security, “I was not in control of the process followed after I reported the matter to Major-General Rhoode,” Ramaphosa contended, “I can only assume that it was conducted in accordance with the rules and regulations of the SAPS governing such matters.”

Ramaphosa reiterated that there was no misstep on his part, arguing that he honoured his Oath of Office, respected the Constitution and rule of law. But despite Ramaphosa’s cries of innocence, a thriller is unfolding in real-time in South Africa for the President as well as for the ruling party. The independent panel has found that Ramaphosa may have committed serious violations including the breaching of anti-corruption laws. The panel found that Ramaphosa had exposed himself “to a situation involving a conflict between his official responsibilities and his private business.”

The independent panel took care to point out that it had conducted its work without fear or prejudice. There is little reason to doubt that the panel acted with anything but legal sagacity. The head of the independent panel said: “Dragging the president before an impeachment process is a huge decision, it cannot be done on flimsy [grounds], it has to be something tangible.”

But how the Section 89 process is to unfold may still bring unexpected twists and turns. A statement released by the Presidency last night said that the panel report requires “careful reading and appropriate consideration in the interest of the stability of government and that of the country.”

Picture: Armand Hough. African News Agency (ANA) – The official handing over of the long-awaited Phala Phala report took place at the SA Parliament on November 20, 2022.

The panel, as esteemed as is may be, is nonetheless limited in its power for its recommendations are not binding on Parliament. There are still many steps in the road towards the possible impeachment of Ramaphosa. The next step is for Parliament to adopt the report and only then would an impeachment committee be set up. It is very likely, that despite the political drama, Ramaphosa will side-step being impeached.

With ANC’s parliamentary dominance, the required two-thirds required to remove Ramaphosa may be a step too far. The main body of ANC MP’s are likely to rally around their President like highly charged belly dancers, despite deeply factional fault-lines, as they did in 2017 when President Jacob Zuma survived an impeachment vote.

In the free form of the current politics of South Africa, anything goes. In the practised tap dance of Ramaphosa, and in tandem with his protective forces not only in Parliament but in the columns of mainstream media and in the corridors of monied power brokers, it may be that disclosure, accountability, and transparency will all be expediently side-stepped. Anything is possible in this New Dawn of no accountability where a Public Protector can be suspended, in a grand retaliatory move, just days after announcing an investigation into the Phala Phala matter. That the President’s response to the thirty-one questions posed by Public Protector Advocate Busisiwe Mkhwebane remains hidden, under a heavy cloak of protection, is testament to a royal lack of accountability and transparency.

Yesterday, The New York Times reported that South Africa has moved a step closer to removing President Cyril Ramaphosa. The article says, “Although the unprecedented finding is just an early step in any path to impeachment, it throws Mr. Ramaphosa’s presidency into crisis and casts doubt on his future as South Africa’s leader.’

For Cyril Ramaphosa, things will never quite be the same. Just last week he was at a banquet with the new King of England. King Charles hosted Ramaphosa in an official state visit. The BBC describes the ornate state banquet, attended by some 160 guests, ‘the guests, each place setting with six different glasses, and using a 4, 000 piece dinner service dating back to George IV, had a starter of brill and a main course of pheasant”. Just last week, Ramaphosa was at the top of the table, alongside the King and Prime Minister of England. In just a few weeks, in the ANC’s game of thrones in South Africa, Ramaphosa could well lose his crown.

Whatever the outcome of the impeachment process and the December Presidential election, the myth of Cyril Ramaphosa as a noble fighter against corruption, as a leader dedicated to best-in-class governance and transparency has fallen, and this can never be restored. This is the greatest vote of no-confidence for any leader and one that cannot be salvaged for all the money in the world. Phala Phala may prove to have been a very expensive side-hustle for Ramaphosa. Perhaps in the end, the lyrics from Michael Jackson’s Thriller make the most sense; “darkness falls across the land, the midnight hour is close at hand. The foulest stench’s in the air.’

Heller is a political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa.’

This article is exclusive to The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.