/ 1 December 2022

Why President Cyril Ramaphosa should resign

Cyril Ramaphosa 9275
If the spirit of the step-aside rule is to protect the ANC from public perceptions of corruption, then Ramaphosa meets every aspect of the rule’s aim. Photo Delwyn Verasamy, M&G

President Cyril Ramaphosa has no choice but to resign, following an independent report into his conduct at Phala Phala. This is because he has lost the moral authority to wield the country’s apex office, apart from the serious legal questions now clouding his presidency. 

Ramaphosa’s resignation would do more for accountability than any of his attempts in office to reverse the ANC’s longstanding record of corruption.

He should resign regardless of the outcome of any criminal trial or impeachment proceeding. This is not to say that he is not in legal trouble. The damaging effect of the independent panel’s findings on Phala Phala suggests criminality and unconstitutionality on the president’s part. 

On one hand, Ramaphosa may have seriously violated South Africa’s key corruption law, the Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Activities Act (Precca). On the other hand, he may have seriously violated the Constitution, a shortcoming that sunk his predecessor, Jacob Zuma. In the worst case, he may have acted criminally and violated the Constitution. It does not get more serious than that.

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If the president has “seriously” violated corruption laws, then he faces the real prospect of criminal prosecution, even imprisonment. Importantly, the panel did not just find that he may have violated Precca; they found that he may have seriously violated Precca. This implies that his conduct was, possibly, criminally egregious.

What is more, Ramaphosa failed to convince the panel against this finding, despite having ample opportunity to do so. Three independent legal minds were unanimously unconvinced by the president’s denials and excuses in his submission to the panel. Here is the uncomfortable truth: South Africa must once again reckon with a president in the crosshairs of crime.

Assume, however, that Ramphosa eventually escapes the high standard for criminal liability — a finding of wrongdoing beyond a reasonable doubt. This does not end his nightmare, because grave constitutional questions still linger. The constitutional court’s Nkandla judgment was a pivotal moment in our nation’s democracy: it set a far-reaching precedent on the signal importance of presidential accountability. 

According to that unanimous judgment, any president’s conduct assumes special constitutional importance, precisely because of the power that the Constitution confers on the president. With this power comes a reciprocal duty, far beyond the duties of any common citizen, or even any other executive office bearer. When the president wobbles, the Constitution shakes. Thus, Ramphosa’s potentially unconstitutional conduct strikes at the core of constitutional democracy writ large.

When Ramaphosa assumed the presidency, doubts already circled regarding his ability to separate fortune from power. These doubts first arose through his involvement at Marikana, where his dual roles as a senior ANC politician and a mining non-executive director of Lonmin Platinum collided. The doubts deepened when Ramaphosa’s internal ANC campaign attracted stupendous sums from powerful business interests. Yet, on the wave of soaring public sentiment and a friendly media environment, Ramaphosa was able to dodge these doubts.

The Constitution strains to prevent presidents from exploiting public power for private gain. This is clear from section 96 of the Constitution and the jurisprudence of the constitutional court. As s 96(2)b states, presidents should not only avoid such conflicts, but they should also avoid even the risk of such conflicts. 

The bar for this type of conduct could not be set lower. A president should be able to foresee that their conduct risks a conflict of interest, irrespective of whether such conflict materialises. The very idea of benefiting from an active business — and even taking operational decisions within such a business — while being president constitutes a grievous attack on this constitutional prescript. 

Yet this is just what the independent panel found Ramaphosa may have done. Never mind criminal prosecution, if Ramaphosa could not foresee the risk of benefiting, directly or indirectly, from private transactions while holding presidential power, then he does not deserve the privilege of the presidency.

Then there is the question of disclosure. Assume that Ramaphosa is innocent of all these allegations. Why did he not tell the nation about the burglary on his farm when it happened? And why, once the burglary was exposed, has Ramaphosa not been able to answer basic questions about the existence of all those dollars in his furniture? 

Why could he give the independent panel an extensive response, while keeping South Africans in the dark? Why has he been strategically leaking certain information about his responses, while concealing other information? Ramaphosa is not acting like someone who has nothing to hide. 

Now, leave all these mounting doubts aside. Simply ask yourself whether, in his conduct since early 2020, Ramaphosa’s behaviour meets the minimum standard for ethical integrity required of any president. Whether he is found guilty of corruption, violating tax laws, breaking disclosure requirements, or violating the Constitution is quite irrelevant. 

What matters is the way that Ramaphosa has hidden all that has now been revealed from the South African public. That mere act of obfuscation and dishonesty is enough to demand his resignation, such is the sanctity of the presidency.

Ramaphosa’s ethical conduct worsens when one considers the extent of his potential hypocrisy. He has based his presidency on a return to ethical governance. He has chopped the political heads of ANC rivals through the “step-aside rule”, his flagship internal anti-corruption measure. Now, when the shoe is on the other foot, he cannot feign ignorance or resort to legal delay tactics.

On a purposive reading of the step-aside rule, Ramaphosa should step aside, even if he does not resign. Granted, he is not yet facing criminal charges. But, substantively, he faces prima facie doubt about “serious” criminality. 

Why should one person “step aside” because a district prosecutor charges them, while another remains in office when a former chief justice impugns their conduct? If the spirit of the step-aside rule is to protect the ANC from public perceptions of corruption, then Ramaphosa meets every aspect of the rule’s aim.

Combine this with the major governmental and economic difficulties facing South Africa. Need I remind anyone that, as Ramaphosa’s ethical conduct is in the spotlight, the country is experiencing power outages? Need I remind anyone that he has not dealt decisively with corruption in his party? 

Even if he wins the ANC’s December conference at Nasrec, he will do so on the back of ANC leaders who themselves are fingered in one damning report or another. What major foreign policy victories have the Ramaphosa presidency scored? If Ramaphosa boasted a proud record of governance or anti-corruption, then perhaps the case for his resignation would be harder to make. But Ramaphosa’s presidency has been one of spectacular economic, governmental and ethical anti-climax.

At worst, then, Ramaphosa faces spiralling and devastating criminal trials and impeachment proceedings. At best, his ethical conduct misses the required standard. In either scenario, the principle of presidential accountability should transcend petty factional concerns or the fear of what follows Ramaphosa. 

South Africa owes a debt of constitutional gratitude to the members of the independent panel for clarifying the moral choice before the nation. The president must consider his position, lest his position is considered for him.

Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh is a lecturer in the department of international relations at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is the author of The New Apartheid.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.