Under Pressure, South Africa’s President Snubs Party’s Leadership

JOHANNESBURG — As President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa hunkered down with advisers on Friday to discuss a damning corruption report against him, he snubbed a meeting of his party’s top leadership, prolonging the confusion and uncertainty of a corruption-weary public waiting to hear whether he will resign.

Mr. Ramaphosa’s political future was thrown into turmoil after the report, by an independent panel, said he may have broken the law and violated the Constitution in his handling of a burglary, of a large sum of U.S. currency of unexplained origin, at his farm. The 80-person executive committee of the African National Congress, the governing party led by Mr. Ramaphosa, was scheduled to discuss the panel’s findings on Friday as rumors of Mr. Ramaphosa’s imminent resignation swirled.

Instead, the party’s top brass filed into a conference venue in a convoy of luxury cars, only to adjourn within an hour. The party’s treasurer general, Paul Mashatile, told journalists that A.N.C. members needed more time to consider the report and would meet again on Sunday. That meeting will decide what position the already divided party will take on its embattled president.

Mr. Ramaphosa’s absence from the meeting hinted at a politically wounded leader. Before the damning report, Mr. Ramaphosa seemed poised to win a second term as A.N.C. president at the party’s national elective conference, which will be held in about two weeks. As president of the country, he had just wrapped up a visit to Buckingham Palace as the first head of state to visit King Charles III.

The A.N.C. treasurer general, Paul Mashatile, after a party leadership meeting on Friday.Credit…Kim Ludbrook/EPA, via Shutterstock

South Africa’s Parliament is scheduled to debate the report on Tuesday, and will vote on whether Mr. Ramaphosa must face an impeachment inquiry. While the panel of two former judges and a lawyer found that Mr. Ramaphosa abused his power and broke South Africa’s anti-corruption laws, the president’s allies believe he can mount a reasonable challenge against impeachment. The panel’s findings are not legally binding, and its scope was limited to documented evidence submitted. A full impeachment hearing could yet exonerate Mr. Ramaphosa, his allies said.

“I think the president must fight back to get the matter to be clarified properly in the constitutional court or a court of law,” said Speed Katishi Mashilo, the deputy head of the A.N.C. in the Mpumalanga province.

What to Know About Cyril Ramaphosa and ‘Farmgate’

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Who is Cyril Ramaphosa? Before he was sworn in as South Africa’s president in 2018, Mr. Ramaphosa was a former labor leader who became a wealthy businessman. During his campaign, he pledged to root out the country’s debilitating corruption. Now, he could face impeachment over a cover-up involving a stash of money stolen from one of his properties.

What is “Farmgate?” According to the accusations, burglars stole a fortune in U.S. dollars stashed in furniture at Mr. Ramaphosa’s farm. The president never reported the theft to the police or disclosed it publicly, but apparently started an off-the-books investigation and paid the suspects to keep quiet. Mr. Ramaphosa has denied that he was trying to cover up the situation.

What happens next? After an independent panel’s damning report found that Mr. Ramaphosa may have broken the law, his political future grew increasingly grim. The report suggested that the president should face an impeachment inquiry in Parliament to determine whether he should be removed from office, and opponents are lobbying loudly for his resignation.

In the immediate aftermath of the report’s release, the president and his advisers focused their discussions on what the panel’s conclusions could mean for him, the government and the country, according to allies of Mr. Ramaphosa who were briefed on the discussions. But the focus would soon turn to what people in the president’s camp believed were flaws in the report and whether the president should challenge it, his allies said.

Among the concerns that arose during the discussions was that if Parliament went ahead with an impeachment hearing, Mr. Ramaphosa would not be able to properly focus on running a country with a shrinking economy and an electricity crisis. The president considered several options — including challenging the report, allowing the impeachment process to play out or quitting — and some of his close confidants urged him not go the resignation route, allies said.

A.N.C. leaders in support of Mr. Ramaphosa did the rounds on radio and television, while others started online petitions to urge the president to remain in office. A close friend of the president, James Motlatsi, a former trade union leader, said Mr. Ramaphosa considered resigning so that he could challenge the report “from outside.”

“I said no, this is an attack to you,” Mr. Motlatsi, speaking in a radio interview, said he told Mr. Ramaphosa, urging him to remain in office.

A.N.C. members protest outside the party’s headquarters in Johannesburg, in July, to demand action be taken against Mr. Ramaphosa over an undisclosed theft at his farm.Credit…Themba Hadebe/Associated Press

Mr. Ramaphosa’s allies have framed the fallout from this report as not just a personal battle for Mr. Ramphosa, but a struggle over the moral ‌center of the‌‌ liberation movement, which is more than a century old. They say that if Mr. Ramaphosa g‌ives into pressure, his loss will mean a victory for a faction within the A.N.C.‌ that they consider corrupt.

“You cannot be told by a criminal to go,” Mr. Motlatsi recalled telling the president. The A.N.C. described the remarks as “insensitive and rather disappointing” and asked Mr. Motlatsi to retract his comment.

Mr. Ramaphosa’s woes began when a political rival filed a criminal complaint against him, accusing him of hiding the theft of foreign currency from his private residence on his wildlife farm in South Africa’s Limpopo province. The political rival, Arthur Fraser, also accused Mr. Ramaphosa’s security detail of kidnapping the Namibian nationals accused of the theft. The panel’s inquiry was triggered by a charge from opposition politicians, who also accuse him of using his office to pressure the president of neighboring Namibia to ignore the matter.

The panel found that Mr. Ramaphosa breached Parliament’s code of ethics and broke anti-corruption laws when he failed to report the crime to the police. It also cast doubt on Mr. Ramaphosa’s explanation for the source of the cash, and why it was stuffed into a sofa for safekeeping.

The reaction to the panel’s findings and the political spectacle that has followed have created an air of uncertainty in South Africa. The currency, the rand, took a sharp dip. Church leaders weighed in, calling on the president to account to the public. On news channels and social media, the question of whether Mr. Ramaphosa will remain president has dominated the public conversation. People close to the president say he too was grappling with this question.

“The most premature decision would be for President Ramaphosa to just step down,” Gwede Mantashe, the party’s chairman, said during a television interview.

South Africa’s Parliament is schedule to debate the report on Tuesday, and will vote on whether Mr. Ramaphosa must face an impeachment inquiry.Credit…Nic Bothma/EPA, via Shutterstock

Some opposition parties joined the call for him to remain in office.

“President Cyril Ramaphosa should not contemplate, nor be bullied into resigning on the basis of the untested findings,” said Brett Herron, a member of Parliament for the GOOD party.

But Mr. Ramaphosa’s detractors were just as vocal, and continued to call for him to step down. They pointed to other A.N.C. leaders who were forced to step down while facing criminal accusations.

Challenging the report in court would not necessarily halt Parliament’s impeachment process, but it would expose the limitations of the panel’s report and provide a possible lifeline for Mr. Ramaphosa, said Richard Calland, a public law professor at the University of Cape Town.

“It will be important to surgically dissect the report to expose its fallibility,” Mr. Calland said. “It’s essential for the political credibility of his fight back.”

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