Why Cyril Ramaphosa will not tell us what happened at Phala Phala

I know why President Cyril Ramaphosa isn’t ever going to take us into his confidence about what happened on his swanky game farm.

It’s because he can’t.

Here’s how it goes down

I’m by no means a political analyst, but I am good at reading people, and finding patterns.

Along with many other South Africans, I have been trying to make sense of this particular moment in our national life: a president facing impeachment proceedings because of money stuffed into a sofa.

That’s an over-simplification, of course. But there are ways in which it goes to the heart of the matter. Here’s my thinking.

First point: is Ramaphosa being fairly accused?

My main aim this morning was to get as quick a sense as I could of the substance of the report submitted to parliament . Given the time, I’d like to read the report myself, but in the meanwhile I turned to two astute analysts of South African politics.

Rebecca Davis summarised the report in the Daily Maverick and concludes:

What the report suggests, as you read through it, is that the panel had to sift through nonsense on both sides, and what it came down to was effectively a “he said/he said” conflict between Ramaphosa and [former spy boss] Fraser.

Both sides relied on hearsay; both sides had little in the way of convincing corroborating evidence. As such, the panel wrote that they tried as much as possible to identify third-party proof: and what they scraped together was sufficient to establish a prima facie case against Ramaphosa.

Could a court overturn this strange and slight report? Some legal experts have suggested as much. But that won’t change the fundamental problem for Ramaphosa: that his version of what happened at Phala Phala simply doesn’t stack up — and now that it’s crumbling, it risks taking the country down with it

Constitutional law expert Pierre de Vos takes the report apart legal step by legal step and finds it wanting in several respects. But, like Davis, he concludes:

But none of this may matter much. Even if the panel’s report is set aside, the questions about where the foreign currency came from, why it was stuffed in a couch and its theft kept secret, and what President Ramaphosa may or may not have asked his Namibian counterpart to do, will not go away. The only way to make the questions go away is to provide a detailed and honest explanation, supported by the evidence of others involved in the matter as well as any relevant documents, something (as the panel noted) the President has not yet done.

De Vos’s conclusion is that Ramaphosa’s choices are these: jump at the opportunity to clear his name before an ad hoc committee. Or “resign as President of the ANC and the country”.

So far, so good – so why has he not explained?

The question of why Ramaphosa has not provided an explanation for the various improbable events in this sorry saga remains.

And the answer to that (and the dilemma that faces our own dear president) lies in a third analysis piece (behind a paywall) I read this morning. Tom Eaton points out that the president is extremely rich – so rich that Ramaphosa “could put his fortune in an ordinary bank account, earning a mediocre 5% interest, and still be making about R1m a day, simply by breathing in and out.”

What I think went down at Phala Phala

As Eaton points out, Ramaphosa is very rich. That means he has no need to take any notice at all of his various business undertakings. It’s widely reported that he does not draw a salary from activities at Phala Phala. But I would argue that he’s not doing anything else either. In those circumstances, his staff are sommer just doing what South Africans do: making a plan.

If a rich dude appears with cash and buys some buffaloes, maybe that plan extended to stashing the cash, perhaps in the nearest piece of furniture? Why worry the boss – he doesn’t care anyway. And won’t miss the money.

And when the president noticed that something was amiss, got on the phone and said to his security boss, General Wally Rhoode: “Ag man, find out what’s been going on, do what’s needed”, he probably meant, do the right thing. Report it to the cops.

But the good general seems to have done what South Africans do: used some connections, sorted it. After all, why worry the boss, he’s very busy.

The nub of Ramaphosa’s problem

If he is to tell the truth, he has to say: I am so busy and so rich that I have no idea what goes on in my business undertakings. I just let my staff get on with it.

And how would that look when many South Africans are going to bed hungry, jobless and without electricity or water, or both?

That’s why the money stuffed in the sofa is at the heart of the matter. The president’s staff and many of the people he supposedly represents live in the world of making a plan, of sorting things, of making a deal, of finding a connection, of taking what you can get when and where you can get it.

A world where desperation and poverty drive many to daily despair; a world where everyone breaks the law, a little or a lot.

A world where a pile of dollars is finders keepers.

The president on the other hand lives in a world where this is invisible, where things run smoothly because – well, just because. Who knows how?

But he also knows that as leader of the African National Congress, our liberators, he cannot possibly admit that that divide exists.

And that’s why we will never hear the truth, whatever he does actually decide to do.

Main picture: President Cyril Ramaphosa in Parliament on November 23. Credit: GCIS, Flickr. Licence: CC BY-ND 2.0

The stuff that’s at the bottom of blog posts…

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