CAPE TOWN – The burglars cut through a wire fence around a sprawling property, crept up a stone farmhouse, climbed through a window and rifled through the furniture until they found their bounty: a fortune in US dollars, in cash, said to be in the millions.
The farm’s owner was Cyril Ramaphosa, president of South Africa, and he never reported theft, two years ago, to the police or disclosed it publicly.
But now a political rival has, and the exposure has tumbled Ramaphosa’s presidency is in full-blown crisis. He has been accused of lurid cover-up that includes a team kidnap and interrogate the burglars, then pay to keep the thieves quietly shield themselves from allegations of money laundering and tax fraud associated with having much foreign currency hidden in his house. General Chat Chat Lounge
Mr. Ramaphosa, who rose to power as an anti-corruption crusader, seemed headed toward a relatively comfortable re-election this year as leader of South Africa’s dominant political party, the African National Congress. Now, as he looks to contain the scandal, he made a rare move on Friday – he held a news conference to take questions from journalists.
But following a raucous session in the parliament in which opposition politicians constantly interrupted and insulted him, Mr. Ramaphosa provided reporters with little clarity on a saga people are calling Farmgate. He evaded questions about the episode with an repeated refrain: “due process.”
“I’m a process person,” he said. “The process must unfold.”
Mr. Ramaphosa has conceded that a burglary took place and that he did not go to the police, but he insisted that he did not break any laws. The money stolen was far less than alleged, he said (how much, he would not say) and it proceeds from the game sold his farm.
There is little illusion that true or not, the allegations, surfacing at this moment, have baldly political motives.
Arthur Fraser, who made the claims public last week with a complaint to the South African National Police, is the former spy chief and an avowed ally of the president’s nemesis, former president Jacob Zuma. The ANC is scheduled to hold its national elections in December, and factions are closely aligned with Mr. Zuma has been working feverishly to undermine Mr. Ramaphosa’s bid to win is a second term as the party’s leader. For them, this scandal is a gift from above.
Mr. Ramaphosa, 69, was a labor union leader in the 1980s and a leader of the ANC who helped negotiate the end of apartheid in the early 1990s. He was Nelson Mandela’s preferred successor, but after losing a bid for his presidency in 1997, he went into business and became very wealthy.
He later returned to politics as a deputy to Mr. Zuma, whose reputation for corruption was well established. Mr. Zuma was forced to resign the presidency in 2018 and is now being prosecuted on corruption charges.
Mr. Fraser also faces corruption allegations of himself, stemming from his time overseeing state security. With a report on his conduct set to be released soon, analysts say he may be trying to create a distraction.
In a strikingly detailed, 11-page affidavit, Mr. Fraser laid out how a domestic worker discovered cash hidden in the furniture at the president’s 17-square-mile rare game farm, Phala Phala Wildlife, in the northeast. Mr. Ramaphosa is an avid game breeder, and Phala Phala bills itself as one of the conservation and top quality animals, including white impala, roan antelope and golden wildebeest.
Mr. Fraser contends that a domestic worker enlisted five men from Cyferskyl, the informal settlement where he lived – four from Namibia, one from South Africa – to break in and steal the money on the night of Feb. 9, 2020.
By Mr. Fraser’s estimate, which he conceded was speculation, made the men between $ 4 million and $ 8 million.
Some of the burglars fled to Cape Town, his affidavit said, while a suspect went to Namibia. Mr. Ramaphosa sought the help of the Namibian president, Hage Geingob, it said. (Mr. Geingob said in a news conference that he never did any favors for Mr. Ramaphosa related to this case.)
Rather than report crime to the police, Mr. Ramaphosa enlisted the head of his Presidential Protection Unit, Maj. Gen. Wally Rhoode, to investigate.
According to Mr. Fraser, General Rhoode launched an off-the-books investigation, pulling together a team of current and former police intelligence investigators and a local farmer, who eventually detained and interrogated the suspects, then paid each of them, and the domestic worker, 150,000 rand. ($ 9,600) to keep quiet.
Asked about the allegations, Mr. Ramaphosa said South Africans were demanding that he “follow due process, let this matter be seen in.”
But as he tried to deliver a budget statement to Parliament on Friday, members of the Economic Freedom Fighters, an opposition party, continually tried to shout him down, calling him a money launderer to lead the country. Several of them got into scuffles with security as they were physically removed from the room, delaying the proceedings by three hours.
Mr. Ramaphosa trudged into the news conference for his small, windowless auditorium, his eyes appearing heavy over a black mask. About two dozen reporters tried every way to get him to address the scandal.
Was he shocked when the allegations became public?
“Yes, of course,” he said. “You say, ‘What is this?'”
Will this scandal taint his effort to fight corruption?
No, he said, suggesting that this is not the kind of corruption that really hurts South Africans.
Mr. Ramaphosa has staked his presidency on the endemic corruption that has led the ANC to lose support of many South Africans. He has sidelined some of the organization’s top officials, prosecutors have been charged with crimes. He would step aside from his post if he were charged, he said.
His wealth has long been an Achilles’ heel in a country where many officials have used their public roles to enrich themselves. Questions frequently surface about how pure he has been in amassing his fortune.
His involvement in the scandal made it “difficult for us to say there are still innocent people within the movement,” said Hlengiwe Ndlovu, a senior lecturer at the School of Governance at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
“It means the ANC just pays lip service – to everybody – to make this whole issue of corruption,” she added.
Now, Dr. Ndlovu said, Mr. Ramaphosa’s political opponents within the ANC have an opening to unseat him when the party meets to elect its leader in December.
The suggestion that political opponents were capitalizing on the scandal to bring down the president was irrelevant, said Tony Yengeni, a top ANC official who is part of an anti-Ramaphosa faction.
“I think that’s a flimsy excuse to avoid accountability on the part of a person who’s been accused of very serious crimes,” Mr. Yengeni said. “Whether some of us who don’t like him are going to jump on the bandwagon or not, for me, neither here nor there.”
Mr. Ramaphosa faces recriminations from even his own supporters.
“Surprised is an understatement,” Chris Matlhako, an official of the South African Communist Party, an alliance partner of the ANC, said of his reaction to the burglary cover-up.
“I think it’s a huge dereliction of duty on the part of Cyril, and this is despite the fact that he’s been doing good things,” he added.
Mr. Ramaphosa’s predecessor, Mr. Zuma, met its downfall after being consumed by numerous scandals. Asked why South Africans should believe he was any better than Mr. Zuma, Mr. Ramaphosa said that time will tell.
“So I’m relying on the process to deal with this matter,” he said, “and that’s the best I can say.”