Why did South African anti-corruption ‘saviour’ President Ramaphosa have $4m stuffed behind the sofa?

On Wednesday 1 June, South Africa’s former spy chief Arthur Fraser strode into a police station in Johannesburg and announced he was filing a complaint against the President of the Republic and African National Congress leader Cyril Ramaphosa.

Fraser, the head of the South African State Security Agency under discredited ex-president Jacob Zuma, said Ramaphosa had in 2020 sought to cover-up the theft of $4m (£3.3m) from his farm in Limpopo province – $4m in large bills that had been stuffed surreptitiously into the farmhouse furniture. Fraser’s 12-page sworn statement came with photographs, documents and CCTV footage of the alleged theft taking place.

The revelations have gripped South Africans. They have also posed more questions than answers. Why did Ramaphosa not report the break-in and theft to the police? Why did Fraser wait more than two years to report the revelations? And the perhaps the biggest – and most – searching of all, what is South Africa to do if the person supposed to drag the troubled country out of the morass of corruption that has held it back since its liberation from apartheid is himself shown to be tainted?

Cyril Ramaphosa promised to clean out the stables at the African National Congress. But news of the Phala Phala farm scandal, timed suspiciously to overshadow the arrest of two of his biggest targets in the war on corruption, paints a picture of South Africa’s democracy tying itself in knots.

Fraser claimed the criminals broke into Ramaphosa’s Phala Phala wildlife farm on February 9, 2020, after the housekeeper discovered the stash and told her brother, who assembled the gang of four Namibians and two South Africans to perform the heist.

The president, who was abroad at the time, said he reported the incident to the presidential protection unit, rather than the police. His head of security, Major-General Wally Rhoode, assembled a team of retired police officers and serving members of the crime intelligence unit, who recovered some of the stolen cash from the housekeeper and some of her alleged co-conspirators after interrogation.

Fraser claims that the housekeeper and the alleged perpetrators were later paid nearly $10,000 for their silence.

In his list of unsubstantiated charges, Fraser, who is seen as an ally of Ramaphosa’s bitter rival, the disgraced former president Zuma, also accused Ramaphosa of kidnapping, bribery, and money laundering.

Shortly after the ex-spymaster’s claims. Ramaphosa issued a statement confirming the robbery. He said that “proceeds from the sale of game [animals] were stolen”. His office said he was “not involved in any criminal conduct”, and that he pledged his full cooperation with any police investigation.

He has since added: “I have never stolen tax-payers’ money.” With a response that evasive, Ramaphosa would have fancied his chances against a lie-detector.

His less jaundiced critics are not accusing him of raiding the state’s coffers, but of financial irregularities that nonetheless look bad for a head of state whose mandate rests on fighting corruption.

Within a month of obtaining any of the $4m dollars from the sale of game animals, Ramaphosa should have declared it to the South Africa Revenue Service; he clearly didn’t. He also failed in his duty to report the huge sums to the country’s anti-money laundering agency, the Financial Intelligence Centre.

One person with links to the ANC, who did not wish to be identified, told i: “The law is pretty clear; he should have declared the money. And then his presidential bodyguard went the full Liam Neeson, sending out private jets [to Namibia] to bring back suspects. The optics aren’t good.”

Former prosecutor Thuli Madonsela, currently a professor of law and social justice at Stellenbosch University, believes, however, that the Farmgate revelations have been designed to distract attention from far more serious corruption – the “state capture” scandal.


State capture is shorthand for a cabal influencing a state’s decision-making processes to line their own pockets

And in South Africa, during the decade-long reign of Jacob Zuma, there existed a state within a state, in which a coterie of connected individuals and senior politicians plundered the country’s assets. Three Indian-born businessmen – Ajay, Atul and Rajesh Gupta – helped by Zuma – are accused of being at the heart of this vast web of corruption. The Guptas are said to have decided key government policies and even chosen cabinet ministers.

why did south african anti-corruption ‘saviour’ president ramaphosa have $4m stuffed behind the sofa?
© Provided by The i Atul Gupta at the launch of the new national daily newspaper, called The New Age, in Sandton, South Africa. The paper involves the Gupta Group, as well as former minister in the presidency, Essop Pahad (Photo: Leon Sadiki/Gallo Images/City Press/Getty Images)

Such was the closeness between the Guptas, and Mr Zuma and his family, they are routinely referred to as the “Zuptas”.

Rajesh Gupta and Atul Gupta were finally arrested in UAE this month – just a day after Fraser made his head-line-grabbing claims.

“It is important that all news is reported and I’m not suggesting that no coverage should be given to the President’s alleged money. But I do get a sense that at this stage, those who are implicated in state capture have been dictating the public narrative,” Madonsela told SABC News.

“The Guptas were arrested on the 2 June and that this sudden conscience of Mr Fraser happened on 1 June, and normally when people are going to be arrested, they may be informed they about to be arrested… and therefore, it’s very difficult to believe that Mr Fraser didn’t know that the Guptas were in the process of arrest.”

She added: “Everywhere you turn, we are talking about Phala Phala and very little is being discussed about the arrest of the Guptas.”

This isn’t entirely true. On Wednesday, Chief Justice Raymond Zondo published his final report on state capture. More than 1,430 individuals and institutions, including Zuma, are implicated in the investigation.

“State capture was an assault on our democracy,” Ramaphosa said on receiving the document.

But in the final section of this week’s report, Zondo says that Ramaphosa, who was the deputy president when state capture took place, should have done more to fight the rampant corruption.

And while the President’s own apparent Farmgate transgressions might seem like small beer compared to the epochal corruption of Zuma’s era, this hasn’t dampened criticism of the president by his opponents.

John Steenhuisen, leader of the centrist Democratic Alliance (DA), in a statement that hardly smacks of confidence in South Africa’s own institutions, this week called for the FBI to investigate Farmgate. He hit out at Ramaphosa’s refusal to answer questions on the scandal. “You can’t stay silent on this matter. Because the longer you stay silent, the more the thing is going to infect and poison the body politic,” he said.

“It’s now becoming clear why President Ramaphosa has been so reluctant and so slow to remove many of the bad eggs from his cabinet and other key institutions of state…. The Saga lays bare the fact that the ANC is rotten from the head down.”

Ramaphosa’s enemies within the ANC this week threatened to make a citizen’s arrest on him over the Phala Phala farm scandal. It is this reaction, from the pro-Zuma, Radical Economic Transformation (RET) faction of the ANC, that underlines the invidious position in which South Africa finds itself.

ANC members can continue to back a president, whose anti-corruption credentials now look tarnished, or support – or at least enable – the return of a much more sinister grouping within the ANC.

In December, the ruling party will have to decide whether to reaffirm Ramaphosa as its leader. The ANC’s share of the vote fell in the 2019 election. But with 58 per cent support, ahead of the DA’s 21 per cent, it remains the dominant party and expects to win the next election. So, in December it will choose not only a party leader but probably the next president.

Ahead of the party conference, the battles for power are already being fought – by fair means and foul.

“These RET people are thugs,” says Tim Gibbs, a lecturer in African History at UCL and the author of Mandela’s Kinsmen: nationalist elites and apartheid’s first Bantustan.

He points to their pivotal role the last summer’s explosion of violence, looting and arson – the most extensive civil unrest since the end of Apartheid – which came when Zuma, began 15-month prison sentence for contempt of court after ignoring instructions to participate in a corruption inquiry.

Afraid of Ramaphosa’s anti-graft drive, key Zuma supporters, such Carl Niehaus, and members of Zuma’s family, took to Twitter to fan the flames.

“They are the detonator for the explosive situation created by South Africa’s poverty and unemployment,” Gibbs says. “Right now, the RET faction are trying to mobilise these sorts of forces.”

RET calls for more affirmative action and even widespread compulsory land seizures to redress the country’s woeful inequality. But as is often the case with radical left factions, the RET’s actions are at odds with its rhetoric.

Many observers think the ANC radicals would replace one unjust system with a kleptocracy of their own. One commentator told i there would be a “feeding frenzy” if the RET mob took over the ANC – and the country.

The graft-mired radical wing is personified by people such Zandile Gumede, the “gangster mayor” of the eThekwini Metropolitan area in and around Durban from 2016-2019, and Ace Magashule, who was forced to stand down as ANC secretary-general last year as a result of corruption charges.


Ramaphosa brought in new anti-graft rules for the ANC that require those under police investigation to step down, so there is the possibility he’ll yet be hoisted with his own petard.

The president has probably never been whiter than white. A fabulously wealthy man (Forbes estimates his net worth at $450m), with his fingers in so many pies, (having married into the powerful Motsepe dynasty), he probably isn’t free of the disinterest in high finance that marks out true anti-graft champions.

Public opinion in South Africa is split over the seriousness of the claims against Ramaphosa. And the president retains a great deal of support.

Even if he survives the Farmgate scandal, however, and defeats his radical opponents in the ANC’s own civil war, his prospects of improving the lot of most South Africans looks at best, uncertain.

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