The political future of President Cyril Ramaphosa hung in the balance on Friday, as South Africans wondered whether he would cling to power or resign over accusations that he sought to cover up a burglary at his farm.
On Thursday, the 70-year-old head of state was rumoured to be close to stepping down in the face of calls to quit — but by Friday morning, the pendulum seemed to have swung the other way as allies urged him to fight on.
The African National Congress (ANC), which has ruled South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994, was to hold an emergency session of its decision-making body at 1200 GMT to discuss a crisis that has deepened party divisions.
Ramaphosa has been under fire since June, when a former spy boss filed a complaint with police, alleging he had concealed the theft of a cash haul at his farm at Phala Phala in northeastern South Africa.
Instead of alerting the authorities, he allegedly organised for the robbers to be kidnapped and bribed into silence. Ramaphosa has denied any wrongdoing.
“There’s no factual and legal basis for (him to go),” Mathole Motshekga, an ANC lawmaker and Ramaphosa ally, told AFP on Friday.
The rand recovered some ground against the dollar early Friday after a sharp drop the previous day, following publication of a report from an independent commission into the scandal.
Late Thursday, Ramaphosa’s spokesman Vincent Magwenya said the president, who has been holed up in talks with ANC leaders, was considering all options.
An announcement was “imminent,” the spokesman said, but stressed the president was not “panicking.”
The decision would not be “rushed” but made in the interest of the country and the government’s “stability”, Magwenya said.
“The top ANC people don’t want him to leave,” an ANC executive told AFP on condition of anonymity late Thursday.
The head of the influential Anglican Church also pleaded for the president to stay on.
“No one should be above the law, but to pass final judgement on a person based on what is in effect a board of preliminary investigation, which has not made a final determination of the facts, could lead to lawlessness in South Africa,” Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, the successor of the late Desmond Tutu, said.
– Cash under cushions –
The president has denied any wrongdoing, saying the accusations against him were “without any merit.”
But he admitted that $580,000 in cash — which he said was payment for buffaloes bought by a Sudanese citizen — was stolen from under sofa cushions at his ranch.
The vast sum has cast a dark shadow over Ramaphosa’s bid to portray himself as graft-free after the corruption-tainted era of Jacob Zuma.
On Wednesday, the three-person special panel tasked with probing the affair submitted its report to parliament.
It concluded Ramaphosa “may have committed” serious violations and misconduct in not reporting the theft directly to police and in seeking the help of his Namibian counterpart to apprehend the thieves.
Parliament is scheduled to examine the report on Tuesday.
The debate could lead to a vote on removing him from office. For this to succeed, a motion has to be supported by at least two-thirds of lawmakers.
The scandal has come at the worst possible moment for Ramaphosa, who had looked set to secure re-election at the helm of the ANC — a stepping stone to a second term as national president.
The ANC, which after 28 years in power is experiencing dwindling support, is due to vote in a new leadership on December 16.
– ‘Life goes on’ –
“The president has overwhelming support for re-election,” said Motshekga, the ANC lawmaker, describing the panel’s report as “not conclusive”.
“We will go to Parliament on Tuesday and just reject that report and life goes on.”
Ramaphosa took office at the helm of Africa’s most industrialised economy in 2018 vowing to root out corruption that had taken root across state institutions.
He now risks becoming the third ANC leader forced out since the party came to power after the end of apartheid.
Ramaphosa’s predecessor Zuma dodged four impeachment votes until the ANC forced him to resign over graft in 2018.
The ANC also pushed Thabo Mbeki out of office in 2008 in the middle of a power struggle.