South Africa president is accused of misleading parliament about $36,000 donation

  • >>Kimon de Greef, The New York Times
    Published: 2019-07-20 10:53:24 BdST

FILE PHOTO: South African President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers his State of the Nation Address at parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, June 20, 2019. REUTERS

South Africans witnessed the extraordinary spectacle this week of having both their current and their former presidents publicly called to account on accusations of corruption — charges that are also escalating a power struggle within the long-ruling African National Congress party.

The leader of the country’s anti-corruption agency Friday said that the current president, Cyril Ramaphosa, had “deliberately misled” Parliament about the nature of a $36,000 donation to his campaign in 2017 from a logistics company at the center of a major corruption scandal.

Busisiwe Mkhwebane, who leads the government’s anti-corruption agency, also said that Ramaphosa had violated the ethics code of his party, the ANC, giving him 30 days to disclose his campaign funding in full. The president answered Friday that the accusation was “deficient both factually and in law,” adding that a formal response by his lawyers had not been given sufficient consideration.

The accusation against Ramaphosa came at the end of a week in which Jacob Zuma, his predecessor as president, had been called to testify before a high-level inquiry into government corruption. On Friday, he briefly withdrew from testifying, in a standoff that has reflected deep divisions within the ANC.

Corruption and factionalism have continued to plague the ANC, which has dominated South African politics since the end of apartheid, and the timing of the two developments was unlikely to be a coincidence, analysts said.

Ramaphosa, formerly Zuma’s deputy, won the party leadership in 2017 after a bruising internal battle. Soon afterward, he forced Zuma to step down as South Africa’s president, a humiliating defeat that Zuma has not forgiven. Corruption flourished under Zuma, but he never admitted any wrongdoing.

Ramaphosa took office pledging to root out corruption and patronage within the ANC but has faced strong opposition from a rival faction within his party.

Mkhwebane also called on the national prosecuting authority to further investigate evidence of money laundering by Ramaphosa’s campaign. It appeared likely that Ramaphosa would challenge the ruling in court, but the bigger risk to the president may be that it will give ammunition to his critics, who want him removed from the presidency.

The ruling against Ramaphosa posed a significant political risk at a time when some of his opponents were facing their own scrutiny over alleged misconduct.

Confronted with evidence of a suspicious payment last year, Ramaphosa initially told Parliament that it had been made to a foundation run by his son, Andile, a businessman who the president said was working with the logistics company, Bosasa.

But after Ramaphosa’s son denied involvement in the transaction, the president changed tack and said that the donation had been made without his knowledge.

Bosasa has been accused by several whistle-blowers, including its former chief operating officer, of using bribes “like monopoly money” to win lucrative contracts from government officials.

At a briefing in Johannesburg this week, Mkhwebane said that Ramaphosa had exposed himself to “the risk of a conflict between his official duties and his private interest, or used his position to enrich himself and his son.”

Since taking office in 2016, Mkhwebane has clashed repeatedly with Ramaphosa and his allies, who in turn have questioned her impartiality. One report by her office, on a state dairy project used to channel millions of dollars toward the Guptas, an Indian business family with ties to ANC officials, was dismissed in court because senior politicians involved in the scandal had not been interviewed.

This month, Mkhwebane ruled that Pravin Gordhan, the public enterprises minister and an ally of Ramaphosa, had overseen an illegal spying unit at the national revenue service. Zuma had used the allegations, which have been intensely disputed, to oust Gordhan from the position of finance minister.

Ramaphosa has publicly sided with Gordhan in that dispute and filed supporting papers last week in an effort to set aside Mkhwebane’s report.

The hearings at the corruption inquiry that has clashed with Zuma had been postponed since Wednesday, when the former president’s legal team complained after nearly three days of testimony that he had been “brought in under false pretenses.”

On Friday, things took a bizarre turn at the inquiry when Zuma withdrew in the morning — “We are here to tell you that we will take no further part in these proceedings,” said his lawyer, Muzi Sikhakhane — before reversing course and saying that he would resume cooperating.

Zuma left office last year under a cloud of suspicion about his conduct, and the commission, led by Judge Raymond Zondo, was established to explore allegations of corruption so pervasive that it has come to be known as state capture. Zuma’s lawyers argued that the commission had overstepped its mandate in posing detailed questions to the former president.

The line of questioning included the allegations that Zuma had allowed the Guptas to dictate government policy, to the extent that they were allowed to select Cabinet ministers sympathetic to their interests.

©2019 New York Times News Service