An image of Cyril Ramaphosa standing at a lectern

President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, makes a speech at the Guildhall on November 23, 2022 in London, England.

Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images

What You Need to Know about Cyril Ramaphosa's Cash-in-Sofa Scandal

On Tuesday, the South African president faces a crucial impeachment vote in Parliament that could see him disgraced out of office. Whatever happens, many South Africans are tired of the unanswered questions.

There comes a point where we need to truly look at ourselves in the mirror and honestly critique our sense-making. How did South Africa get here, to the stage that yet another president could potentially leave office out of disgrace – following on from former presidents Jacob Zuma, who resigned before him due to internal pressure of the ANC, and Thabo Mbeki, who resigned after a formal request from the same party a decade earlier?

One would have hoped that a nation, especially a democratic nation that fought and successfully dismantled the regime of apartheid and entered an era colored as the “Rainbow Nation,” would have harnessed wisdom to cultivate a better political system that sees to the needs of the people. But it seems greed and discontent aren’t far away when the plight for self-preservation outweighs the concern for others.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, through the African National Congress (ANC), stood alongside notable figures such as Nelson Mandela, Tokyo Sexwale, andPatrice Motsepe in helping to end apartheid. While their activism and pursuit for change proved successful, here we are, 28 years later, facing an economic crisis, an upsurge of load-shedding reaching level 6, fuel prices hiking at alarming rates, and unemployment rates at catastrophic heights -- all while still fighting to recover from the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As South Africa’s constitution found new breath, aims to rebuild the nation centered on empowering the economic wealth of disadvantaged communities. Much of this fell to various Black-owned groupings, which included the Shanduka Group, founded by Ramaphosa (renamed the Cyril Ramaphosa Foundation in 2004). Before he became president, Ramaphosa built his career as a businessman who continued to rise to national prominence.

Long before Shanduka was founded in 2001, Ramaphosa was the first general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers in 1982, and in 1991, he was elected ANC secretary-general. Shortly thereafter, he became head of the ANC team that negotiated the transition to democracy, and when the country held its first democratic elections in 1994, he was elected chairperson of the Constitutional Assembly, helping to write South Africa's new democratic constitution.

A presidential campaign rooted in anti-corruption

Cyril Ramaphosa (R) holds up his right hand as he is sworn into office by South Africa's Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng (L) in Cape Town, on February 15, 2018.

Photo: RODGER BOSCH/AFP via Getty Images

This history of activism and constitutional reconstruction in sum built a picture of the would-be perfect leader whose role proved worthy of a president-elect. Ramaphosa served as deputy president before ultimately becoming president in 2018.

The spotlight on him today, however, portrays a passive leader, silent to the cries of his people, all while allegedly holding onto a whopping amount of money in his Phala Phala game farm sofa. The irony in this "Farmgate" scandal is that Ramaphosa’s entire campaign for the presidency of the ANC was rooted in anti-corruption.

How did this story come to be? A refresher for those not familiar with the tale that seems like it could have been ripped from the movies follows.

In June this year, former spy chief Arthur Fraser walked into a police station in Joburg and filed a criminal complaint against Ramaphosa, accusing him of kidnapping, bribery, and money laundering, among other things, in relation to the alleged theft of $4m from his Phala Phala Farm. The president then issued a statement confirming a robbery on his farm in 2020, but denied any wrongdoing or criminal conduct.

The statements submitted by Fraser and by Ramapahosa reveal completely different versions of events -- the president’s version claims money hidden in his sofa in the amount of $580 000, which he alleges he got for selling buffalos, was stolen from his game farm and he denies claims that as much as $4 million was taken.

But a parliamentary committee was established to investigate the Phala Phala scandal and found that there was prima facie evidence that Ramaphosa violated the constitution, setting up calls for his impeachment.

As claims of corruption arose from the Farmgate scandal, South Africans wondered if Ramaphosa would resign, as it all but seemed he would. The rand drastically dropped and we were all left in the midst of political uncertainty yet again, as some in the ANC called for him to go, others for him to stay.

Now what?

This week, Ramaphosa is set to face the music. Parliament will decide on Tuesday whether to begin proceedings that would remove him from office, and three days later, the ANC will meet to consider re-electing him as its leader.

Whatever happens, the discontent among South Africans remains. In practice, Ramaphosa has failed to address the endemic corruption brewing whilst also being accused of corruption himself. Should we have seen this coming? When he came into power, Ramaphosa was one of South Africa’s richest men, with an estimated net worth of $450 million.

He also had the cloud of the Marikana tragedy hanging over his head. Although that happened before he was president, he had been a non-executive director of the company that owned the Marikana mine at the time, and earlier this year, many of the widows appealed to him to apologize for what happened to their husbands.

Among the many issues the country faces, chief among them, Eskom's inability to deliver sustainable electricity to the country, we South Africans have to wonder what will change?

Can we be assured that the allegations made against Ramaphosa will adequately be addressed? Will there be a change in the ANC’s structure to introduce leaders who will truly serve the interest of its people?

Perhaps human nature outweighed the plight for equality in the nation, and as election season sits on the horizon, my hope is that South Africa’s leaders wake up, and bring forward a revolution that fosters equality, honestly tackles corruption, and makes amend to a system that is dire need of complete restructuring. As the people of South Africa, we carry the responsibility to make choices that don't only please and honor the sacrifices of the past but also serve to shape the future of the next generations.