/ 13 December 2022

Ramaphosa escapes impeachment inquiry

President Cyril Ramaphosa. Photo: Rajesh Jantilal/AFP

President Cyril Ramaphosa has escaped an impeachment inquiry after ruling party MPs voted en masse to reject a report that he may have a case to answer in relation to the Phala Phala scandal, with Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and former mineral resources minister Mosebenzi Zwane proving notable exceptions.

The minister of cooperative governance declared that she was voting yes “as a principled member of the ANC”. Next in line in the roll call voting process was Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan, who said he was voting against the report for the same reason.

Predictably, backbencher MP Mervyn Dirks and former North West premier Supra Mahumapelo, both firmly in the ANC’s so-called RET faction, also voted in favour of the report. 

With Dlamini-Zuma and Zwane, who has been indicted on state capture corruption charges, it brought to four the number of MPs who plainly defied a three-line whip.

There was some confusion regarding the vote of the party’s Tandi Mahambehlala, who responded “party line” when her name was called. The muddled response was eventually recorded as a vote in favour of the motion.

Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, who has publicly called on Ramaphosa to step down, was absent from the chamber when her name was called, though she was present while the report was debated. Former health minister Zweli Mkhize, who is standing against Ramaphosa for the ANC’s presidency at the party’s national elective conference at the weekend, was nowhere to be seen.

The result was 214 against adopting the report, against 148 in favour and two abstentions.

It means that the impeachment process sparked by an opposition motion will go no further than the first stage, which saw an independent panel chaired by former chief justice Sandile Ngcobo conclude that on the face of the information before it, the president may have committed a grave breach of the law or the Constitution. 

The report brought Ramaphosa to the brink of resignation, before party leaders — and legal advice — persuaded him otherwise.

He decided, some 48 hours after receiving the full report, to file an application to the constitutional court to have it set aside on review.

In Tuesday’s debate, opposition leaders had a field day criticising the president for resisting scrutiny and refusing to subject himself to a constitutional process. Several charged that his response, and that of the ruling party, seemed straight out of the Jacob Zuma era.

Constantly mired in scandal, Zuma survived some eight votes of no confidence because MPs were threatened with losing their seats if they broke ranks and voted with the opposition.

Democratic Alliance (DA) chief whip Siviwe Gwarube said this vote was not about power or the leadership battle within the ruling party but about the Constitution and the rule of law. To reject the report was to send a signal that those who were politically connected remained insulated from accountability.

“It is undoubtable that crimes were committed on the president’s Phala Phala farm and state resources were abused. It is also evident that this did not begin and end with the president, an entire network of government players and ministers are possibly implicated.

“This is not the first time a choice like this has been faced by this house,” she said.

“Many of you here voted to disregard the Nkandla ad hoc report that detailed the abuse of state resources by the former president, Jacob Zuma. You did so shamelessly.”

She said those who held the party line again on Tuesday would one day have to concede that it was a lack of courage that placed them on the wrong side of history.

The panel found that there was prima facie evidence that Ramaphosa had breached anti-corruption legislation by failing to formally report the theft of $580 000, on his version, from his game farm. 

And it saw a case for him to answer to charges of serious breach of the Constitution, not only in the allegations against him but in the lacuna in his account of what happened at the estate in early 2020.

DA leader John Steenhuisen recalled that the questions the panel said the president did not answer plausibly included what the source of the money was, why it was not banked, why it was concealed in a sofa and why the cattle he said was sold was never collected.

He said it was the prospect of having to answer these under oath in front of an impeachment inquiry that prompted the president to prepare a resignation speech.

“And it was only when your ANC comrades reminded you how your party normally deals with these inconveniences — how easily the ANC abuses its majority in this house to crush any notion of accountability — that you then decided to cancel your resignation.”

Steenhuisen said in the wake of the Zondo report on state capture, there had been a pledge not to forsake executive accountability again.

“And yet, here we are again. What has really changed?

“Then it was Nkandla. Now it’s Phala Phala. Then it was fire pools and cattle kraals. Now it’s couches stuffed with dollars.”

Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema said when the Constitution was adopted in 1996, Ramaphosa stood next to then president Nelson Mandela and proudly brandished a copy in the air, but today he stood “as the greatest enemy of constitutionality in our country”.

South Africans had a right to know what transpired at Phala Phala but the president was avoiding questioning on the subject “like a fugitive”, he charged.

“What if the president of South Africa is a spy? What if the spy is paid in foreign currency?”

Vuyo Zungula, the leader of the African Transformation Movement, who brought the impeachment motion that led to the appointment of the Ngcobo panel, argued that ANC MPs were protecting the president under duress. Pointing to Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe, the chairman of the ANC, he said he had threatened MPs with expulsion on the way to the chamber if they were to break rank.

Speaking after the debate, Mantashe did nothing to counter this claim.

He said in a television interview that if one decided to defy party honours it meant one was no longer interested in being a member.

But Justice Minister Ronald Lamola said the party “did not hold a gun to anybody’s head”, and went on to argue that the outcome of the vote did not see the evading of accountability because the report was duly debated.

“We looked at the report and we were not convinced. Even this debate was a process of accountability.”

Zungula and the United Democratic Movement (UDM) had petitioned Speaker Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula to call a secret ballot to allow MPs to vote in accordance with their conscience in a highly charged political climate, but were denied.

On Tuesday, she sought to shut down further debate on the subject but UDM chief whip Nqabayomzi Kwankwa threatened that parties may yet take the issue to court. The ATM has in the past prevailed in the appellate court after taking a decision to deny a secret ballot on review.

After all votes had been cast, Mapisa-Nqakula took the unusual step of allowing those whose votes appeared uncertain to clarify themselves, including Mahambehlala, who said she had meant to vote “no”. 

Malema objected that there was no provision for such in the parliamentary rules, saying: “It is actually intimidating … and that is unacceptable.”

The speaker heeded his words, saying she did not want any “silly mistake” to undo the process. It meant that Mahambehlala’s vote was reflected as a “yes” in the tally.

The high water mark of Ramaphosa’s legal review is that the panel misread its mandate, and did not apply the proper standard of whether there was sufficient evidence of serious breaches of the law, but the weaker test of prima facie evidence.

But filing for review was also a political strategy, designed to shift the focus from the adverse findings of the panel to the legitimacy of the reasoning employed.

Zungala said on Tuesday the application was filed in bad faith, to undermine the work of parliament. The ATM has filed papers in response.