South Africans are still preoccupied with Ramaphosa’s biggest scandal to date: Farmgate, as it’s become known. The term trended several times on Twitter in the past week along with “Phala Phala” – the president’s private game farm in Limpopo where US$4 million in cash was stolen in 2020. It had been kept under wraps until one of Ramaphosa’s political enemies dropped the bombshell this month.
The fall-out has been significant.
Ramaphosa’s entire brand is built on anti-corruption. Opposition parties have had to tread carefully around him – his approval ratings as a president have generally been high (62% in 2020 and a whopping 80% in 2021). Significantly, his popularity tracked above that of his party. The EFF and DA couldn’t follow the same strategy they had with his predecessor, the widely reviled Jacob Zuma.
Last week, opposition parties took on Ramaphosa in Parliament in scenes reminiscent of the #PayBackTheMoney chaos that defined Zuma’s final appearances in Parliament – a political #ThrowbackThursday, if you will.
Ramaphosa’s budget vote speech on Thursday was overshadowed by EFF MPs demanding he step down. They were easily silenced, however, because most of them attended the session virtually. On Friday, when Ramaphosa returned to reply to the debate on the Presidency budget, it was a different story. The EFF were physically present, and caused a ruckus of note. EFF MPs had to be carried out the chamber, with some alleging they were touched inappropriately. Parliament says it will investigate.
DA leader John Steenhuisen delivered a blistering speech, saying: “Phala Phala is your Nkandla. It will forever be a big, ugly stain on your presidency.”
It may be overstating matters. This wasn’t public money and it’s still not clear whether Ramaphosa did anything wrong. But the allegations of kidnapping suspects, roughing them up and paying them off to stay silent continue to haunt him, along with questions about whether the rules were followed in transacting with that much forex. Ramaphosa’s insistence that “due process” be followed in response to journalists’ questions on Friday is looking increasingly weak.
Of course, all this detracts from the actual work of Parliament and may be a forbidding taste of what’s in store for Ramaphosa, now that this scandal has provided his political enemies both within and outside the party with ammunition.
On the justice front, the Hawks have received the SAPS docket into the robbery and will take over the probe into it.
No president in the history of democratic South Africa has served two full terms – although President Nelson Mandela’s stepping down after one term was by choice. Will the same fate befall Ramaphosa?