JOHANNESBURG – The political future of South Africa's president, Cyril Ramaphosa, grew increasingly grim Thursday as he huddled with advisers and his opponents lobbied loudly for his resignation a day after a report to Parliament said he may have broken the law in connection with a large sum of cash stolen from his game farm.
The report by an independent panel, released Wednesday, suggested that Ramaphosa face an impeachment hearing in Parliament to determine whether he should be removed from office. It cast heavy skepticism on his explanation of how a large sum of U.S. currency came to be hidden in – and stolen from – a sofa at his farm, Phala Phala Wildlife.
"The president's in a very, very terrible position," said SithembileMbete, a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Pretoria.
The president's detractors, who have long been lobbying for his ouster, used the report to buoy their argument that he lacks the moral authority to continue as the leader of the country and carry out the anti-corruption fight that has been his central talking point.
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"I think the President has to step aside now and answer to the case," Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a member of Ramaphosa's Cabinet who is challenging him for leadership of their political party, the African National Congress, wrote on Twitter after the panel's report was released.
The president's office said Wednesday that Ramaphosa would address the nation in due course, and there were predictions in South African media that he would give a resignation speech Thursday. But on Thursday evening, Ramaphosa's spokesperson, Vincent Magwenya, convened a brief news conference to say that the president was still pondering his future and would not speak that day.
"All options are on the table," he said.
Ramaphosa was consulting a wide range of people across government, within his party and in other political parties to determine the best course forward. The president's wide consultations aligns with his governing style – and is a point of criticism among detractors who say he consults to the point of indecision and paralysis.
"Whatever decision the president makes, that decision has to be informed by the best interest of the country," Magwenya said. "And that decision cannot be rushed."
The ANC is scheduled to convene its national conference to elect its leaders in about two weeks. Until he was rocked by allegations of corruption, Ramaphosa had seemed in a comfortable position to win reelection as the party's president, positioning him to win its backing to run for a second term in 2024.
But in June, one of his political foes filed a complaint with police alleging that between $4 million and $8 million in U.S. dollars was stolen from Ramaphosa's game farm in February 2020. The complaint said he failed to report the theft to police and attempted to cover it up in order to shield himself from allegations of tax fraud and money laundering associated with the cache of money, and from questions about its source.
Ramaphosa argued only $580,000 had been stolen and that the money represented the proceeds of the sale of 20 buffaloes to a Sudanese businessman. He said he had broken no laws and that the money had been stashed in a couch because a manager at the farm worried that it could be stolen from a safe that several staff members could open.
But the panel of two former judges and a lawyer reported that the president's version of events had many holes, and he had failed to account for why he did not report receiving foreign currency to South Africa's central bank or pay taxes on it as required, or why he did not report the theft to police. The panelists expressed doubt that the money actually came from the proceeds of the sale of buffaloes, which the claimed buyer apparently never took away from the farm.
The National Assembly is scheduled to debate the panel's findings Tuesday, and political analysts say it is likely lawmakers will vote to convene a committee to hold a hearing on whether Ramaphosa should be removed from office. The president can be removed if two-thirds of the members of Parliament vote against him.
Following the release of the panel's findings, the president's office released a statement denying any wrongdoing and saying that he would address the nation in due course. The president and his deputy, David Mabuza, both canceled public appearances Thursday.
The ANC's national executive committee was slated to meet to discuss the panel report Thursday evening, but the meeting was postponed until Friday morning. During a news conference at the party's headquarters Thursday afternoon to announce the candidates for the executive committee elections this month, the news about the president appeared to have party officials on edge.
When reporters attempted to ask questions about Ramaphosa, the party's spokesperson shouted themdown, waving his hand from a podium.
Lindiwe Zulu, the minister of social development and an executive in the ANC, said she could not make a judgment on her own about what the president's future should hold. Although she did not support the president in the last ANC leadership election, she said she had vowed to put her best foot forward when she was appointed to his Cabinet. She appreciated some of the things he had been able to accomplish for the ANC and the government, she said.
So it all came as a shock when he was accused of corruption, she said – and even more so now, after the panel's finding that he may, indeed, have broken the law.
"I am disappointed," she said. "And that's all I can say."