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Sunny Cyril and his albatross

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    Nat Quinn
    The polite pretence that Cyril Ramaphosa is a trustworthy man may, at last, be winding towards an end.
    When, an archbishop and the party’s only vaguely successful previous leader both publicly imply that South Africa’s president may be an equivocating money launderer, at least one thing is certain. And that is that Ramaphosa has failed in his desperate attempts to dampen public scepticism over the theft of US850,000 paid in cash — ostensibly for the impulse purchase of wildlife (never collected) by a Saudi businessman who says he initially intended to buy a house —  and then concealed in a sofa on his farm.
    Leading the charge is former president Thabo Mbeki. Operating in an African National Congress that has been stripped by death and retirement of leaders with stature, Mbeki is making something of a reputational comeback.
    Despite his own decidedly patchy presidency, cut short by what the ANC’s trade union allies cruelly described as a “factory-fault recall”, Mbeki’s record looks good in retrospect to many cadres when compared to the dismal showings of his successors, Jacob Zuma and Ramaphosa. The supportive party faithful rationalise that while Mbeki’s bizarre theories on HIV/Aids contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of South Africans, at least he grew the economy and wasn’t secretly looting the fiscus.
    The upshot is that after a monumental decade-long sulky silence, Mbeki is back in the fray, delivering poisoned barbs dressed as nuggets of elder-statesman wisdom. And he is obviously relishing his self-imposed mission to clean the ANC’s Augean stables and to rescue the party from its destructive, criminal instincts.
    If this means having to topple Ramaphosa — the two have been bitter foes harking to the days, when they were competing to become the first post-Mandela president — so be it. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.
    Last month, Mbeki told a university audience that Ramaphosa’s explanations of what had happened at his Phala Phala game farm were unconvincing and encouraged a “natural suspicion” of money laundering. Mbeki also controversially claimed that the Public Protector’s March report that cleared Ramaphosa of wrongdoing was merely “interim … posing some questions … “not the final word”.
    Last week, perhaps spurred by the lack of response from the Union Buildings to this broadside, Mbeki upped the ante with a letter addressed to Deputy President Paul Mashatile. While the 17-page missive is a typically discursive and impenetrable Mbeki thicket — replete with arcane Marxist allusions, revolutionary jargon, philosophical wormholes, petty score-settling, and lots of exclamation marks — it is unerring and unsparing in its skewering of Ramaphosa over Phala Phala, the ANC’s participation in a cover-up, and its potential for causing significant electoral damage.
    Mbeki’s demand for a Phala Phala accounting has drawn influential clerical support. Thabo Makgoba, the Archbishop of Cape Town, chose the Easter pulpit to rebuke Ramaphosa, much in the style of the moral lashings that his famous predecessor, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, visited upon National Party leaders.
    Rejecting Ramaphosa’s explanations so far as unsatisfactory, Makgoba urged the ANC to stop defending the indefensible and “to hold the president accountable”. He also called on Ramaphosa “to take the public into his confidence” about what really transpired. Clearly, said Makgoba, there was more to the matter than the sale of animals.
    These developments will cast a pall over the presidency. They are reminders that the Phala Phala matter will not be easily buried.
    It’s a damaging setback for Ramaphosa. At the beginning of the year he briefly seemed cock-a-hoop. If not for the country, then at least on a personal level things were beginning to improve after a period beset by difficulties.
    After a brief honeymoon following the eviction of the despised Zuma, Ramaphosa had endured years of unrelentingly heavy political weather. Unemployment, crime and corruption, infrastructural decay and, most keenly in the public consciousness, the continual electricity outages, had grown steadily worse.
    But it was not these national crises that had left Ramaphosa feeling somewhat down in the mouth.
    For like Dickens’s Mr Micawber, Sunny Cyril, has always seemed serenely confident that “something will turn up” to rescue the ANC from a disenchanted electorate. And, if fortune wouldn’t oblige, there was always the option of buying a happy outcome with welfare largesse for the destitute and pay increases for the public service.
    Rather, it was the internal turmoil in the party that had crushed Ramaphosa’s spirit.
    His Radical Economic Transformation rivals in the party were conspiring to unseat him at the December 2022 party leadership conference. The leaking of the Phala Phala matter gave them a convenient stick with which to beat him.
    Parliament had no option but to act on the allegations of presidential malfeasance. Eventually, reluctantly, and after much stalling, it appointed a legal triumvirate, headed by former Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo, to investigate the constitutional ramifications of the Phala Phala debacle.
    The panel, in contrast to the tardy MPs, were inconveniently efficient. In early December, it reported that there was prima facie evidence that Ramaphosa might have broken his oath of office.
    Its recommendation was that Parliament should interrogate the matter thoroughly to see whether there were indeed grounds for impeachment. This came at the worst of possible moments for Ramaphosa and his supporters. The ANC leadership election was just weeks away. Ramaphosa was not only politically vulnerable and facing possible humiliation, but the burden of never-ending crises seemed to have left him at the end of his emotional tether and on the verge of quitting.
    The country was alerted by the Presidency that a momentous announcement was imminent within hours. South Africa’s currency and bond markets took a hammering. But his inner circle, which had been taken by surprise and panicked by Ramaphosa’s lack of resolve, managed to prevail upon their leader to stay and fight.
    With the aid of some nifty political footwork, their strategy was quickly vindicated. Or so it seemed initially.
    Ramaphosa filed a direct appeal to the Constitutional Court to challenge the Ngcobo findings. Although of patently dubious legal merits — the somnolent ConCourt eventually roused itself in March this year to unanimously deny the application — it served its purpose. It bought the president some immediate breathing space.
    At the same time, the ANC cracked the whip in Parliament. As instructed by Ramaphosa, and in shameful dereliction of their constitutionally mandated role of oversight of the executive branch, all the party’s MPs, bar one, voted to reject the Ngcobo report without any further discussion. Further respite for the embattled president.
    A fortnight later, a reinvigorated Ramaphosa smashed his rivals to retain leadership of the party. His allies also won a comfortable majority in the ANC’s national executive committee, effectively making him immune to the kind of recall that had ended the careers of both Mbeki and Zuma.
    Further apparent vindication came in March when the Public Protector cleared Ramaphosa of any Phala Phala wrongdoing. Then came the cherry on top: a virtually simultaneous statement by the SA Revenue Service — out of the blue and, as SARS kept stressing, entirely of its own volition and free of government pressure — that Ramaphosa and all his business entities, including Phala Phala, were tax compliant.
    Game over. Ramaphosa wins. Nothing to be seen at Phala Phala. Phew!
    Or so it seemed until the meddlesome Mbeki and a turbulent priest made clear — at least in the minds of much of the public and an influential segment of the ANC — that the matter is by no means resolved. They keep hammering the same obvious question: if there is nothing to hide, why is the president still trying so hard to evade a public accounting?
    It is not only Mbeki and a small ANC faction keeping the issue alive.
    The Hawks and the SA Reserve Bank have yet to report on their investigations. The issue of the “interim” nature of the Public Protector’s report is also still unresolved. Following the finding of the Constitutional Court, the Official Opposition will press hard for Parliament to establish an ad-hoc committee with powers of subpoena, to conduct a full investigation under full public scrutiny.
    If the mainstream media and influential civil society organisations, who have been curiously muted until now, join in, Ramaphosa’s critics might find themselves pushing at an open door. It’s dubious whether the president would allow himself to be subjected to a public interrogatory process, whether it be out of fear of what other skeletons might be discovered, or whether it is simply a matter of pride. He is likely to resign instead.
    Turbulence and uncertainty lie ahead, for it’s clear that despite the best efforts of Sunny Cyril and his cronies to shake it off, the Phala Phala albatross is still dangling around the president’s neck. And it’s still reeking.



    source:Sunny Cyril and his albatross – OPINION | Politicsweb


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