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SA is in a dangerous phase where our democracy is at stake

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Judith February is executive officer: Freedom Under Law. She writes in her personal capacity.

A win for Cyril Ramaphosa in December will be a Pyrrhic victory. So much has been lost and destroyed and the Constitution betrayed. 

“I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.”

Diving into the Wreck by Adrienne Rich

Just when we thought the news had reached saturation levels, former  director-general of the State Security Agency (SSA), the notorious Arthur Fraser, lays a criminal complaint against President Cyril Ramaphosa. The story is now well-known and relates to a robbery at the president’s Phala Phala farm in Limpopo in 2020. 

It is a tale worthy of a B-grade movie. Quite where the truth lies in this sorry saga is unclear.

The trite points to make are that we have only one version of an affidavit (Fraser’s), that Fraser himself is implicated in the capture of the SSA and is no stranger to controversy. The final instalment of the Zondo Report deals, in part, with the SSA and its malcontents and these allegations come at a time when Ramaphosa is fighting for a second term as ANC president. Despite the hope we all had to place in Ramaphosa, no one in the ANC can really claim to have clean hands given what we know about State Capture. It was a project and informed the way in which the state was run.

Adding to Ramaphosa’s woes is that the matter has been poorly handled by the Presidency. But then again, one has to work with the material one has. This poor “spin doctoring” saw the president going horribly off-piste in Limpopo recently and providing few facts about his cattle trading business.

Then he told the assembled ANC gathering, “some of the people who bought the animals are here”. This was followed by his characteristic chuckle. Except the rest of South Africa is not chuckling. The allegations remain serious and at the very least one has to wonder what is actually going on at Phala Phala? Has the president breached SA Reserve Bank regulations? Has he paid tax on these foreign funds? Who bought which cattle and what were the proceeds exactly? This matter will place pressure on the SA Police, the National Prosecuting Authority and SARS. It will not, and should not, go away. And it should not be laughed off.

In recent days Ramaphosa has retreated into his well-known “following due process” line when asked about the robbery. He added that he would “step aside” if required to and is entrusting the independent institutions to investigate. “Step aside” is an internal ANC policy and has nothing to do with the constitutional removal of a president as set out in section 89 of the Constitution. But, it should not surprise us that the president’s first thought gravitates to the ANC. We, the people, have always come a distant second in this presidency.

As if to further prove that point, Ramaphosa went on to say he would present himself before the ANC’s integrity commission to explain.

It is that part which may well have infuriated South Africans most. Not only do we now have a president who has a serious cloud hanging over his head but we also have one who, while hiding behind “due process”, is comfortable to account to the ANC and not directly to us.

To win at Nasrec, Ramaphosa would have had to enter into a series of compromises with all manner of characters. It is this Faustian pact that infuses Ramaphosa’s every action and has had a grave impact on his ability to govern.

He has consistently shown fealty to his party to the detriment of the country whether during the insurrection, the fire at Parliament or dealing with errant members of his Cabinet, his presidency has been tinged with weakness. Is that a weakness borne of a desire to do the impossible by unifying the corrupt and venal ANC or, a weakness borne of wanting to be liked or, more sinister, a weakness borne out of the fact that he, himself is compromised? Or, all three? 

Ironically of course despite the allegations against him, Ramaphosa should win a second term as president of the ANC. Money and politics make comfortable bedfellows, after all.

But he will do so, his credibility in tatters and will spend his second term as a compromised lame duck unless he provides a proper and feasible explanation regarding the Phala Phala matter to South Africans. The more time passes, the harder it will become for the president to regain the trust of a cynical citizenry. 

Already these days Ramaphosa’s every word on corruption is tainted by the allegations. Even Ramaphosa’s suspension of the public protector, though entirely warranted (one cannot emphasise this enough), seemed motivated only by his need to seize control and ensure that her investigation into Phala Phala was hobbled. He has argued otherwise but there is a legitimacy gap in everything he says now. 

We also saw this last week in Parliament. The scenes were embarrassing and disgraceful as EFF MPs were dragged out of the chamber. Their actions in Parliament last week during the Budget votes further degraded that institution. But when one cannot answer allegations of corruption and when citizens hear more questions than answers, it is open season for those like the unprincipled EFF to embarrass the president.  They have their own reasons for doing so and a commitment to transparency is not one of them.  In a volatile political environment all one needs is a seed planted and the rest takes care of itself.

Now it is not only the Speaker of Parliament who has allegations of corruption swirling around her head but the president himself. 

In the meantime, we have serious governance challenges; an electricity grid on the brink of collapse, the effects of climate change, rising food and fuel prices and a society in general teetering on the brink of social unrest. Ramaphosa, now distracted by scandal, will be hard-pressed to prioritise any of these challenges, try as he might.

South Africa is in a dangerous phase where our democracy is at stake – we have been duly placed on notice. Arthur Fraser has opened the proverbial Pandora’s box and all the evil has now spilled into the open in a manner befitting a Greek myth. We now know precisely what we are dealing with, if we did not before. We see a president desperate to save his political life and we are entirely on our own in protecting and defending our democracy and its Constitution. We had a taste of it during the insurrection last July.  Where were those constitutionally mandated to protect us and why has no one been arrested despite the president assuring us that, “we know who they are?”. In fact, threats against the state are openly being made by those who support former President Jacob Zuma, even now.

The defiant taunting and the attacks on the president’s authority will only gain more ground and how will Ramaphosa respond this time? Those who blindly defend the president point to Fraser’s motive and his own alleged criminality. But, two things can be true at once; Fraser can be an unsavoury character and Ramaphosa could be compromised. The moment calls for us to be clear-eyed in defence of transparency and accountability no matter if the enquiry takes us to an uncomfortable point.

The great reformer who started out on the front page of the Financial Times, London in 2018 now has international media asking only about Phala Phala. (see, inter alia, “For South Africa’s Leader, Being a Burglary Victim Spells Trouble” – The New York Times)

There can be no more talk of unity within the ANC. There is only open warfare and a pathetic scramble for power. 

A win for Ramaphosa in December will be a Pyrrhic victory. So much has been lost and destroyed and the Constitution betrayed. It is past time to think beyond the ANC and its tawdry, corrupt battles which consume us all. The party is well and truly unfit for purpose and there will be no deus ex machina to save it from itself. It simply must die and we must fashion something of lasting value which goes beyond the fixation on party and personality. 

In his inaugural lecture, sociologist and thinker Karl Von Holdt started expanding on his thesis of creating “alternative social orders” and how these are taking shape in our country. 

“That these ‘alternate social orders’ are rising are pushback, also the promise of being able to imagine a different future for the country. It’s the communities that plant communal food gardens to ensure food security; those joining forces to fix potholes or to conserve and share water; those who say no violence in their names; those who reject political hierarchies and jockeying for political power; and those who are finding new intersectionalities for action and strengthening activism… While these emerge primarily in forms of resistance against untrustworthy and self-interested leaders in unions, communities, student movements and traditional rural representatives, they simultaneously point towards a different kind of future. The autonomous experiments from below are different types of new social orders and they are the signs of light, a kind of irrepressible desire to do things differently. They lay down new repertoires of action, new ideas, new possibilities,” Von Holdt says. 

Where might these take us, should be our primary question. Will these alternative social orders lead to a fresh, creative approach to a citizen-centric democracy? 

In the meantime, unless the president answers the public’s legitimate questions related to the 2020 robbery, and unless he provides satisfactory answers, the shadow of Phala Phala will continue to fall over this unhappy presidency. 

The veil of pretence has been lifted and Ramaphosa has shown himself to be like all the rest: unworthy of our trust. DM

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  • Is it possible that wally rhoode was a confidant of Arthur Fraser, setting up Pres Ramaphosa,up to now everybody was satisfied that the Prez was okay. Now most including the media is lambasting the Prez.He is a businessman, always was, he was out the country.A auction went down.A housebreaking and theft, not a robbery took place .The confidante Rhoode did his trap nicely.Fraser new about this, waited 2 years and just before the 4th report of the Zondo Commission comes out.Voila, the State capturers make their move.Everybody is now focusing there attention on the Prez ,the atrocities of the villains Fraser Zuma etc. is forgotten.We are playing in the hands of the snakes.Give the prez a chance and rather focus on Frazer s misdeeds and also Rhoode.Dont become enablers of the State Capturers and RET miscreants.Later if our democracy survives you can refocus on the Prez.Also give us a detailed history of the EFF and all their shenanigans.

    • You are being (understandably) partisan. There are two possibilities: nothing/something to hide. In the one case broad outlines can be given in the interim, touching on the key suspicions of the critics. In the other case it is uncertain what Fraser kept in reserve or what investigations will uncover, so spinning a story too early risks further embarrassment. In the latter case the explanation will come as late as possible.

  • “The veil of pretence has been lifted and Ramaphosa has shown himself to be like all the rest: unworthy of our trust.” That sums it up beautifully. And it is just going to get worse before it gets better, if it ever does get better.

  • The day Ramaphosa was “crowned” I was sitting at my sports club having a cold one with my fellow club members. They were raving about CR being the savior of South Africa. I piped up saying “hold on, CR has no record of being this messiah. In fact he is just another ANC cadre – answerable only to the ANC.” Wow, sudden silence. Then everyone was tellling me why I was in fact . My defence was and has always been, that just because he is not Zuma he must by definition be great.

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