South Africans are waiting, many in deep trepidation, to find out if President Cyril Ramaphosa is about to resign in the wake of a murky and highly politicised scandal involving cattle, a sofa, and the theft of hundreds of thousands (and possibly millions) of dollars.
Much now hangs on a meeting of the leaders of the country’s governing party, the African National Congress (ANC), which is due to convene in the coming days.
Mr Ramaphosa’s most ardent supporters – and he remains a popular leader – frame this moment as an all-or-nothing fight between a decent man, desperately trying to clean up a corruption-ridden country, and the forces of chaos with the ANC who are trying to get rid of him in order to keep hold of their loot and keep themselves out of prison.
One commentator likened the drama to Shakespeare’s Henry V, urging Mr Ramaphosa to “stiffen the sinews” and fight to clear his name.
There’s no doubt that the case against Mr Ramaphosa was – at least to begin with – politically motivated.
A well-known political rival, linked to South Africa’s disgraced former President, Jacob Zuma, dramatically revealed allegations that millions of dollars – hidden in a sofa – had gone missing from Mr Ramaphosa’s high-end Phala Phala game farm, and that there had been a police cover-up.
The president – a wealthy businessman and former liberation struggle icon, once backed by Nelson Mandela to succeed him – loftily declared that he was innocent.
But the story has not gone away, and over time, as fresh details and denials have leaked out, even some of his supporters have acknowledged that the scandal has been poorly handled by Mr Ramaphosa and his aides.
“There are questions that he has not been able to answer… about these huge sums of cash. He’d told us he’d put all these [businesses] in blind trust. I think he was very clumsy and careless… and out of touch,” said Nomboniso Gasa, a political analyst.
So what now?
In the over-heated world of the ANC – a party so long in power that its furious internal feuds now feel more like open-warfare – the campaigning and jockeying are in full swing.
The party is due to select a leader later this month – with Mr Ramaphosa an easy favourite to win. But those calculations are now changing fast.
It’s been widely reported that Mr Ramaphosa has already decided to quit, but is being persuaded by allies to think again, or at least to buy time in order to ensure a smooth transition to someone credible.
His current deputy, and automatic heir, Vice-President David Dabede Mabuza, is not tipped as the right man for that role.
But could anyone in the current ANC leadership – so many tainted, themselves, by allegations of corruption – garner the levels of nationwide popular support that Mr Ramaphosa still enjoys?
And if not, are we watching the slow unravelling of the party that once liberated South Africa from apartheid – and election defeat in 2024?
South Africa’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, is certainly hoping to capitalise on the current crisis, calling for early elections. Some analysts see the ANC’s decline as both inevitable, and good for the country’s young democracy.
“Most South Africans are really concerned about what will happen next. Because there is no-one ready to [replace Mr Ramaphosa]. But this is the beginning of the end for the ANC – and that’s a good thing. The ANC has done its job. It liberated the country. It’s time for something new,” said political analyst Thembisa Fakude.
“I think South Africa has managed to establish very strong democratic shock absorbers, and [Mr Ramaphosa’s resignation – if it happens, would be] exemplary for Africa – here’s a leader who voluntarily resigned.”
It seems unlikely – but still possible – that Mr Zuma’s faction within the ANC will be able to capitalise on the chaos, return to power, and derail the entire anti-corruption drive. That would be a recipe for political oblivion at the next elections.
“The Zuma faction is battling to cohere, beyond a group of people have grievances because they might face charges of corruption. But it’s too early to say they cannot come back,” said Ms Gasa.
But even a moderately competent replacement for Mr Ramaphosa is likely to shake the markets and drive away the few foreign investors still willing to give South Africa a chance, at a time when the economy – grappling with almost daily power cuts – is struggling to recover from the pandemic, and from the years of state corruption during Mr Zuma’s era.
Last year, the feuding within the ANC triggered riots in Durban and elsewhere that left more than 300 people dead and caused billions of dollars in damages. There was a sense then that South Africa had peered over the abyss and stepped back – that it now understood how fragile its young democracy was.
That may be the case, but with no single, credible party poised to capitalise on the ANC’s struggles, the concern here is that South Africa is heading towards an era of deeply unpredictable and unstable coalition politics, easily exploited by smaller populist parties.
As for President Ramaphosa himself – many wonder whether he has the stomach for a long fight, or whether the billionaire businessman, credited for his institution-building approach to government, but criticised for a lack of political muscle – may prefer to leave the ANC to its battles and return to his cattle ranch.
“He did not have enough fighting instinct and an ability to go for the jugular, in getting rid of the most toxic anti-constitutional folk [in the ANC]. We needed someone with a more muscular approach,” said political analyst Eusebius McKaiser.
Seven things about Cyril Ramaphosa:
- Born in Soweto, Johannesburg, in 1952
- Detained in 1974 and 1976 for anti-apartheid activities and launched the National Union of Mineworkers in 1982
- Chairman of the National Reception Committee which prepared for Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990
- Became an MP and chairman of constitutional assembly in 1994
- Moved full-time into business in 1997, becoming one of South Africa’s richest businessmen
- On Lonmin board during 2012 Marikana massacre
- Elected ANC leader in 2017 and on 15 February 2018 became president after the resignation of Jacob Zuma