Impeachment Edges Closer for South Africa’s President, Cyril Ramaphosa

JOHANNESBURG — Cyril Ramaphosa on Wednesday moved to the brink of becoming the first South African president to face impeachment after a report found evidence that he might have broken the law in relation to a stash of money stolen at one of his properties.

The finding by an independent parliamentary panel essentially amounts to a recommendation that Mr. Ramaphosa face a hearing in Parliament that could lead to his removal if two-thirds of the lawmakers vote against him.

The panel cast doubt on the president’s explanation for how the large sum of U.S. currency came to be hidden in — and stolen from — a couch in his living quarters. “The information presented by the president on the storage of the money is vague and leaves unsettling gaps,” the report said.

Although his ultimate fate remains to be decided, Mr. Ramaphosa now confronts the deepest crisis of his presidency, with his future as South Africa’s leader in grave doubt.

The National Assembly is scheduled to meet next week to debate the report and decide whether to convene the removal hearing. Analysts say it seems likely that lawmakers will choose to proceed.

Mr. Ramaphosa faces other challenges, as well.

In about two weeks, his party, the African National Congress, will convene its national conference, and he is expected to face a fierce battle for a second term as its leader.

His detractors within the deeply divided party have been pushing for his removal since allegations surfaced in June that he had millions of dollarsstashed at his game farm, and that he had started an off-the-books investigation after the money was stolen.

With an impeachment hearing perhaps imminent, those foes are likely to smell blood in the water. “His opponents inside the A.N.C. will be going for his head,” said Bongani Ngqulunga, who teaches politics at the University of Johannesburg.

South Africa’s former chief justice, Sandile Ngcobo, left, handing over the impeachment report to the speaker of Parliament, Nosiviwe Noluthando Mapisa-Nqakula, on Wednesday.Credit…Esa Alexander/Reuters

In a statement released late Wednesday, Mr. Ramaphosa reiterated his stance that he had done nothing to violate his constitutional oath and spoke of “an unprecedented and extraordinary moment for South Africa’s constitutional democracy.”

“The conclusions of the panel require careful reading and appropriate consideration in the interest of the stability of government and that of the country,” he said.

Mr. Ramaphosa rose to power in 2017 after campaigning as an anticorruption crusader. His campaign for re-election as A.N.C. leader — and as president of South Africa — got a lift last week, when nominations released from his party’s rank and file showed him ahead by a wide margin.

Now that advantage could be in doubt.

The national executive committee of the A.N.C. is scheduled to meet on Thursday to discuss the panel’s finding. The president is almost certain to face a chorus of opposition. Under A.N.C. rules, officials facing criminal charges are suspended from their roles. Although the finding does not amount to criminal charges, Mr. Ramaphosa’s detractors are likely to argue that he has been morally compromised.

“There’s only one message to him: He must go,” said Tony Yengeni, an executive committee member and longtime Ramaphosa opponent. “He must step aside, and he must cooperate with the police and face the music.”

The president’s troubles started in June, when a political foe, Arthur Fraser, the former head of state security, filed a criminal complaint alleging that Mr. Ramaphosa had $4 million to $8 million in cash stolen from his Phala Phala game farm in February 2020 but never reported the theft to avoid scrutiny.

Mr. Ramaphosa used his personal protection unit to investigate the theft, Mr. Fraser alleged. Mr. Fraser also claimed that suspects had been detained by the president’s investigators and paid off to keep quiet.

In a written statement submitted to the parliamentary panel, Mr. Ramaphosa denied paying off the suspects or attempting a cover-up. He said that on Christmas Day in 2019, a Sudanese citizen, Mustafa Mohamed Ibrahim Hazim, bought 20 buffaloes from his farm. Mr. Ramaphosa said that he had not been present for the sale, but that the lodge manager had put the money in a safe on the property.

A few days later, preparing to leave for time off, the manager felt uncomfortable leaving the money in the safe because several staff members had access to it, Mr. Ramaphosa wrote. So the manager stashed the cash beneath cushions of a sofa in a spare bedroom in the president’s private residence at the farm, believing that no one would break into those quarters, Mr. Ramaphosa said.

About a month and a half later, on Feb. 9, 2020, the cash was stolen from the sofa.

The panel found that Mr. Ramaphosa’s version of events contradicted that of his security head. And his account was marred by holes, it said, lacking a clear explanation of who the Sudanese businessman was, why there was no written record of the sale or whether he had ever collected the buffaloes he purchased.

Mr. Ramaphosa abused his power as head of state to try to get help in his investigation from the president of Namibia, where some of the theft suspects fled, the report said.

The panel determined that the evidence suggested that Mr. Ramaphosa had failed to report the foreign currency to South Africa’s central bank or pay taxes on it.

“There are weighty considerations which leave us in substantial doubt as to whether the stolen foreign currency is the proceeds of sale,” the report said.

Even more confusing was the decision to hide large sums of money in a sofa, which would have been visible to anyone, the panel said.

Ultimately, the panel concluded, there was evidence that the president may have violated the Constitution in conducting private business in conflict with his official duties, and may have broken anticorruption laws in failing to report the theft to the proper authorities.

Mr. Ramaphosa’s game farm in Limpopo Province.Credit…Joao Silva/The New York Times

Mr. Ramaphosa also faces two other investigations — one by the national prosecutor’s office and another by the public protector, a corruption watchdog — that could deepen his troubles.

The impeachment panel came into being at the request of an opposition party. In August, the speaker of the National Assembly, herself an A.N.C. member, initiated the procedure set out in parliamentary rules. The speaker, Nosiviwe Noluthando Mapisa-Nqakula, appointed a panel of two retired judges and a lawyer to determine whether there was evidence to support a case for impeachment.

The panel’s findings essentially amount to the conclusion that Mr. Ramaphosa needs to account for his conduct and establish that he did not violate the law, said Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, a South African lawyer specializing in constitutional matters. But, he stressed, the findings do not mean the president has broken the law.

“You cannot make any deductions about the validity of the charge against him,” Mr. Ngcukaitobi said.

If Parliament proceeds with a hearing, Mr. Ramaphosa would be the first president to face an impeachment hearing since the process for the removal of a president was set out in the Constitution that South Africa adopted in 1996, after the end of apartheid. The law allows presidents to be removed from office if they violate the Constitution, commit gross misconduct or are physically or mentally unable to serve.

The process for impeachment was changed to include the independent panel after South Africa’s top court ruled in 2017 that Parliament had failed to hold Mr. Ramaphosa’s predecessor, Jacob Zuma, to account for the web of corruption allegations he faced. Mr. Zuma resigned without ever having faced an impeachment hearing.

The opposition parties who launched the inquiry have urged Mr. Ramaphosa to step down immediately.

Maj. Gen. Bantu Holomisa, leader of the United Democratic Movement, said there was no need to go ahead with next week’s parliamentary debate, given the evidence against the president. If the president does not voluntarily step down, the A.N.C. should recall him, General Holomisa he said.

“South Africa cannot afford another scenario where the nation and the world is focused on the mistakes of our president,” he said.

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