Ramaphosa’s Future as South Africa’s Leader in Doubt After Damning Report

JOHANNESBURG — The political future of South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, grew increasingly grim on Thursday as he huddled with advisers while his opponents lobbied loudly for his resignation, after a report to Parliament that he may have broken the law in connection with a large sum of cash that was stolen from his game farm.

The report by an independent panel, released on Wednesday, suggested that Mr. 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 Sithembile Mbete, 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.

“I think the President has to step aside now and answer to the case,” Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a member of Mr. 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 on Wednesday that Mr. Ramaphosa would address the nation in due course, and there were predictions in South African media that he would give a resignation speech on Thursday. But on Thursday evening, Mr. Ramaphosa’s spokesman, 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.

Mr. 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,” Mr. Magwenya said. “And that decision cannot be rushed.”

The A.N.C. is scheduled to convene its national conference to elect its leaders in about two weeks. Until he was rocked by allegations of corruption, Mr. Ramaphosa had seemed in a comfortable position to win re-election 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 the police alleging that between $4 million and $8 million in U.S. dollars was stolen from Mr. Ramaphosa’s game farm in February 2020. The complaint said he failed to report the theft to the 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.

Mr. Ramaphosa argued that 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 that 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 the 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 next Tuesday, and political analysts say it is likely that lawmakers will vote to convene a committee to hold a hearing on whether Mr. Ramaphosa should be removed from office. The president would be removed if two-thirds of the members of Parliament vote against him.

Ms. Mbete, the politics lecturer, said that Mr. Ramaphosa would likely survive an impeachment process because his party is in the majority. The panel’s findings are much more damaging to him within the context of the A.N.C.’s bitter internal power struggle.

In some ways, the panel’s finding is a good sign for South Africa, she said — it shows that the country has resilient institutions that are unafraid to hold the powerful accountable. But it’s also bad in that it could cause the president to become consumed by party politics, she said.

“People don’t eat institutions,” she said. “The issues of poverty, unemployment and inequality that are really urgent, it just feels like that’s going to be put on the back burner again.”

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 on Thursday, and his spokesman canceled a news conference.

The A.N.C.’s national executive committee was slated to meet to discuss the panel report on Thursday evening, but the meeting was postponed until Friday morning. During a news conference at the party’s headquarters on 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 Mr. Ramaphosa, the party’s spokesman shouted them down, waving his hand from a podium.

The Democratic Alliance, the main opposition party in Parliament, called for a resolution to dissolve the government and hold elections early — they are currently scheduled for 2024.

Lindiwe Zulu, the minister of social development and an executive in the A.N.C., 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 A.N.C. 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 A.N.C. 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.”

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