President Ramaphosa could survive an impeachment vote this week but seeking re-election could be harder.
Johannesburg, South Africa – This week, President Cyril Ramaphosa will face his toughest tests as leader of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) party – and of the country.
On Tuesday, he faces a crunch impeachment vote in Parliament that could see him disgraced out of office like immediate predecessor Jacob Zuma, who resigned due to internal party pressure, and Thabo Mbeki who resigned from office after a formal request from the ANC a decade earlier.
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But even if Ramaphosa evades being the first president to be impeached in post-apartheid South Africa, the possibility of being sacked this week still lingers. Later this week, he will face the ANC rank and file as approximately 5,000 delegates attend its elective conference in the economic capital of Johannesburg from December 16 to 20.
They will determine if he gets a second term or paves the way for a successor from presidential hopefuls like Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu and former AU Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, ex-wife of Ramaphosa’s former boss-turned-nemesis.
It began in June 2022 when a petition by former spy chief Arthur Fraser about a reported $4m cash stolen from Phala Phala, Ramaphosa’s private game farm in the Limpopo province, set off a chain reaction in South Africa’s political landscape.
The president was accused of a host of improprieties, including money laundering, kidnapping, bribery and “concealing a crime”. Since then, he has been on the receiving end of a siege of calls from party members, opposition and members of the public to resign or be impeached.
Surviving Phala Phala
The calls have intensified as South Africa battles with soaring commodity prices – the fallout of Russia’s war in Ukraine – and recurrent power cuts, further dents to an economy still recovering from COVID-19. In July, Mbeki rebuked Ramaphosa, warning of a coming Arab Spring-type protest as citizens are “faced with a leadership in the ANC where they see people, one after another, being accused of corruption”.
In July, 300 protesters, including members of the ANC, marched through Johannesburg to the party headquarters to, among other things, call for a new president.
Two months later, a parliamentary committee was established to investigate the Phala Phala scandal and decide whether to invoke section 89 of the constitution – the clause dealing specifically with the removal of a sitting president.
The impeachment inquiry headed by a former chief justice found that there was prima facie evidence that Ramaphosa violated the constitution, essentially paving the way for him to face an impeachment hearing.
Multiple reports said – and multiple sources told Al Jazeera – that he was ready to resign. However, his close allies, including Minister of Minerals and ANC chairperson Gwede Mantashe and Finance Minister Enocg Godongwane persuaded him not to.
The president has since gone on the offensive, asking the Constitutional Court to set the report aside and rallying his supporters within the ANC. Key to re-energising that base has been the party’s secretary-general, Paul Mashatile, who has said the ANC will indeed support their man.
Last week, during its NEC meeting, several supporters of the president gathered outside the meeting with placards reading “Ramaphosa we stand by you”, with some telling local media that they saw no reason for him to step down. At the same event, ANC veteran Carl Niehaus also carried a placard reading: “Ramaphosa must go”.
Within the ranks of the ANC, Africa’s oldest liberation movement, the president will have to contend with rivals like Dlamini-Zuma, who has publicly called for Ramaphosa to step aside. Her ex-husband also retains many supporters within the party and allies outside it – like Fraser.
On December 3, Julius Malema, ANC’s former youth leader who now heads the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party, called on his former party to treat the president “ the way we treated Zuma”.
EFF lawmakers have previously heckled the president while he gave a speech in Parliament.
Keeping up with the opposition
A simple majority – 50 percent plus one vote – is needed to secure an impeachment vote. But the ANC occupies 230 of the 400 seats in Parliament and there is the sense that the president will weather the storm.
Mashatile has already told the media that the ANC is “united in its support for the president”, and Minister of International Relations Naledi Pandor has said she is pretty optimistic that “President Cyril Ramaphosa will still be the president of South Africa in 2023”.
On December 6, ANC lawmaker Mmamaloko Kubayi told the National Assembly, “I have been very clear in my articulation why I would want him to stay for a second term. I have not hidden that.”
“It appears he is a survivor, he has sufficient support from the ANC and of Parliament – that is the first important step,” said Dirk Kotze, professor of political analysis at the University of South Africa and former mayor of Wessel Bay. “If he can succeed [against this vote] … this then opens up his re-election as ANC president.”
But for some in civil society, Ramaphosa needs to be held accountable.
“It is supremely important that the president, who holds the highest office in the land, is held to the same standards and processes as everyone else,” said Karam Singh, head of legal and investigations at Cape Town-based civil society group Corruption Watch. “In the end, if the president does choose to resign, his resignation should be in the name of accountability and democratic governance principles.”
The main opposition Democratic Alliance has called for a dissolution of Parliament so that the president can call an early election, adding that he has been “deeply compromised”.
DA leader John Steenhuisen said South Africa’s future should not be decided by ANC delegates who have been “bribed and bought”, but by all the voters of this country.
Death or rebirth
Analysts like Levy Ndou, political analyst and lecturer at the Tshwane University of Technology, Pretoria, argue that opposition parties are divided. This, he said, will ensure that Ramaphosa likely survives the impeachment vote or any call for early elections, and might even be re-elected as ANC leader – and president.
Others say what happens in the next two years will decide if the ANC remains the governing party or is consigned to history.
For all his domestic troubles, Ramaphosa enjoys a good standing with the business community and is perceived to be better than the available options.
“The ANC must decide whether they need Ramaphosa in 2024 [election] and if so the plan should start now,” Ndou added. “If they create instability in the party and government before then, it will not yield good results for the ANC.”
Kotze said the decline of the ANC is already evident and Ramaphosa is perceived as being unable to change public opinion of the ANC as a party beyond repair.
That could make his re-election bid a tricky affair.
Ahead of the 2024 elections, different opinion polls already indicate that the party may lose its majority.
In November, Johannesburg-based think-tank, Rivonia Circle surveyed 2,000 registered voters across the country. Results predict that the ANC will drop to 41 percent, from the 57.7 percent it received in the 2019 election. Another survey conducted by the Brenthurst Foundation was slightly more positive for the ANC, giving it only a drop to 46.7 percent.
Analysts say this could be averted if Ramaphosa goes on a sanitisation exercise of the party in his second coming as ANC leader, now he is aware of his “enemies” within the party and that there are those who “do not want him to succeed”.
But Ndou says Ramaphosa must also focus on the “reform agenda of cleaning up corruption if he wants to be remembered as the leader who was a corruption buster”.
To do that, he must first clear his name and avoid impeachment.