/ 12 December 2023

Ramaphosa’s smallanyana Phala Phala skeleton just won’t go away

Key Speakers At The South Africa Investment Conference
President Cyril Ramaphosa. File photo by Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg via Getty Images

One precarious day almost exactly a year ago, we were expecting Cyril Ramaphosa to resign over the Phala Phala scandal at any moment. 

The president held on and routed his foes in the ANC at the December 2022 elective conference, but investigations into the case have continued, bringing to light new information about the burglary and its subsequent cover-up. 

Phala Phala has become a smallanyana skeleton that will probably hang around to haunt Ramaphosa in the 2024 elections and beyond.

The scandal has returned with a vengeance as a focus of media attention over the past month. 

In my online database of 129 top daily news articles from IOL, News24 and TimesLive for November, the name of the president’s farm appeared 69 times. Out of the 15 words showing the strongest association with “Ramaphosa” in November’s news, only three were not directly related to Phala Phala, and two of those were the title “president” and the name “Cyril”.  

The word most strongly associated with Ramaphosa’s name in November’s news was “cleared”, referring to the fact that then-acting public protector Kholeka Gcaleka declared the president innocent of wrongdoing concerning Phala Phala in June. 

Instead, she “nailed his presidential protectors”, in Karyn Maughan and Jan Gerber’s words, finding that Presidential Protection Services head Wally Rhoode carried out an “improper” off-the-books investigation into the theft. 

Both the words “presidential” and “protector” were closely associated with the president in November’s news, the former because of references to the Presidential Protection Services and the latter because of mentions of the public protector who cleared Ramaphosa.  

The African Transformation Movement (ATM) is challenging the public protector’s ruling in court. Statements filed in the court challenge in November showed that Rhoode ate a meal with the theft suspects and interviewed them but did not charge them. 

They also revealed that Rhoode accompanied Ramaphosa’s adviser, Bejani Chauke, to Windhoek for a secret meeting with Namibia’s President Hage Geingob 10 days after the chief suspect, Imanuwela David, was arrested in that country in June 2020. But Chauke maintains that the meeting was not related to Phala Phala at all.

Ntaba Nyoni Estate, the name of Ramaphosa’s business that received $580 000 for the sale of “sub-standard” Phala Phala buffaloes from Sudanese businessman Hazim Mustafa, was strongly associated with Ramaphosa’s name. This is because, in August, the South African Reserve Bank announced that they found that the money was a deposit, and so “there was no legal obligation on Ramaphosa or Ntaba Nyoni to have declared the foreign currency under exchange control regulations because that transaction was not ‘perfected”’.

In November, the Reserve Bank’s full report came into the public domain, revealing, among other things, that the bank accepted Ramaphosa’s description of the transaction but found inconsistencies in Mustafa’s story about it.

A last reason Phala Phala came back into the public eye in November was the arrest of the three suspects in the theft of the money from the farm: Namibian-born David, domestic worker Froliana Joseph and her brother Ndilinasho Joseph. From their case, we have learned that Froliana has a newborn baby and that, according to the state, David first broke into the wrong farm before stealing the money from Phala Phala. As the case unfolds, more information about the crime will probably draw public attention.

Another theme that emerges from November’s coverage of Phala Phala is the perception that the president has been given more of the benefit of the doubt than other citizens would in the same situation. 

The word “special” was strongly associated with the president’s name, with ActionSA leader Herman Mashaba saying, “Ramaphosa cannot receive special treatment simply because he is the president of the country, and we will, therefore, keep working to ensure he is held accountable.”

The word “VIP” was also strongly associated with Ramaphosa’s name because of his VIP Presidential Protection Services who apparently investigated the Phala Phala theft in secret. The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) could not mount a successful case against former Eskom chief executive Matshela Koko, calling attention to the effect of budget cuts on its work. As Maughan put it, “This is particularly hard to swallow when contrasted with the ease of government spending on VIP protection for President Cyril Ramaphosa and his high-level cohorts in government.

“The Institute of Security Studies previously pointed out that the budget for this protection — which is available to only 200 people — is 74% of the total budget allocated to the NPA and 167% of the Hawks budget.”

The name of Arthur Fraser, the man who broke the story of Phala Phala by laying charges against Ramaphosa in June last year, was also closely associated with the president’s name in November’s news. Every time Fraser’s name is mentioned in conjunction with Ramaphosa’s, he is pointedly called a “Zuma administration spy boss”, calling attention to his possible ulterior motives for waiting until more than two years after the theft to report it.

The one word closely associated with Ramaphosa that was not linked to Phala Phala in November’s news is “appointment”. This refers back to Ramaphosa’s appointment of Thembisile Majola in March 2022 as a long-awaited successor to Arthur Fraser as head of the State Security Agency (SSA).  Majola has now resigned after just 20 months on the job. The Sunday World reported that “Majola not only felt overlooked and her contribution under-valued, but she also found her lack of access to Ramaphosa frustrating and disruptive to her ability to implement the vision she had for the SSA.”   And so the president and the country remain without someone to restore this once-captured agency.

Fraser’s laying of charges seemed carefully timed to weaken Ramaphosa’s chances of being re-elected ANC president in the party’s December 2022 elective conference. As we all know, this failed, and the party threw its weight firmly behind Ramaphosa. Now that this has happened, other parties are queuing up to use Phala Phala to damage the ANC ahead of South Africa’s 2024 general elections. In addition to the ATM’s challenge against the public protector’s report, the Democratic Alliance has challenged the Reserve Bank report in court. ActionSA also says they are considering legal action.

Ramaphosa has made himself vulnerable to this because there are still far more questions than answers about what happened at Phala Phala and why it was covered up

The term “smallanyana skeletons”, a unique South African coinage, describes troublesome, dirty little secrets that just won’t go away. While Bathabile Dlamini had less-than-pure motives for first saying that we all have smallanyana skeletons, she was right. 

Ramaphosa may have smallanyana skeletons tucked away in Phala Phala, but these should also serve as a cautionary tale for the rest of us, politicians and other citizens alike.

Almost all of us have played fast and loose with the law from time to time and rationalised our actions, fooling ourselves into thinking that no one will be hurt. 

Those skeletons eventually do come to light, and in the meantime, they rot away, destroying trust and creating gaping holes in our social fabric. When will we bring out these smallanyana skeletons and deal with them?