Will the African National Congress Buy President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Alibi?

JOHANNESBURG — The story begins when a Sudanese businessman landed in the Johannesburg airport two days before Christmas 2019, according to his account, rolling a carry-on suitcase with $600,000 in cash. He said he had wanted to surprise his South African wife for her birthday, and buy a house.

Instead, according to Cyril Ramaphosa, the president of South Africa, that cash somehow ended up stashed inside a sofa in the private residence of his game farm.

This convoluted story — and whether it is at all credible — is the subject of a scandal that has riveted South Africa and threatened to unseat Mr. Ramaphosa from the presidency.

On Friday, his party, the African National Congress, convenes its national conference, held every five years, where some 4,000 delegates will decide whether to elect Mr. Ramaphosa to a second term as their leader. Given the A.N.C.’s dominance of South African politics, the person elected party president has always become South Africa’s president.

A protégé of Nelson Mandela, Mr. Ramaphosa, 70, rose to power five years ago carrying hopes that he could save the A.N.C., a once-vaunted liberation movement now facing a reckoning over rampant corruption and a failure to provide basic services.

His rhetoric about good governance and record as a businessman gave South Africans hope that he would clean house and help the A.N.C. focus on rescuing Africa’s most industrialized economy.

But now, much of the country — including opposition lawmakers, political analysts and even some of the president’s allies — can’t help but wonder whether he simply represents the same old corruption of the ruling elite.

“Unfortunately, now he’s got that cloud hanging over his head,” said Lindiwe Zulu, a senior A.N.C. official and member of the president’s cabinet who has been supportive of him. Referring to the scandal, she said, “People are going to be asking a question: ‘How on earth do you have something like that being a president?’”

The scandal known as Farmgate erupted in June, after Arthur Fraser, South Africa’s former spy chief and a political opponent of Mr. Ramaphosa, filed a criminal complaint accusing him of failing to report to the police the theft of at least $4 million from the president’s farm.

Mr. Fraser accused the president of instructing his head of security to conduct a covert investigation instead, which resulted in the kidnapping and torturing of the burglary suspects, some of whom fled across the border to Namibia.

One of those suspects, Floriana Joseph, a housekeeper at the president’s game farm, Phala Phala Wildlife, was accused in Mr. Fraser’s complaint of helping to plot the burglary and then being paid off by the president to keep quiet about it.

Ms. Joseph lives in a tiny settlement, Vingerkraal, a spread of boxy tin shacks on dirt lots housing many Namibian exiles, about a 45-minute drive from Phala Phala. On a recent visit with Times reporters, she kept up her guard as she spoke, eyebrows arched, as she cradled her son.

Ms. Joseph, 28, said she never saw money in the president’s couch, let alone coordinated a robbery. The first time she had ever even heard of the break-in, she said, was in a report on a local radio station in June. No investigators had questioned her before that, she said, contradicting an affidavit by the president’s head of security, who said he interviewed her in March 2020, about a month after the burglary.

Now, she suspects that murky figures are out to set her up. Over the past several months, she said, random people have shown up looking for her. Some say they are with the police, while others have refused to identify themselves. She now photographs every car that drives up.

In one instance, Ms. Joseph said, two men tricked her mother, who is illiterate, into filing a complaint with the police saying that Ms. Joseph had been kidnapped in 2020 — a ploy, she believes, by Mr. Ramaphosa’s opponents to give credence to the accusations in Mr. Fraser’s complaint.

Around September, she said, two men surprised her while she was shopping in the nearby town of Bela Bela. Badges that looked like police identification cards hung around their necks, she said, and they demanded that she take them to her bank. They ordered her to print out her account statements and hand them over — likely an effort to find evidence of the stolen cash, or a payoff from the president.

“I told all those people who kept coming, ‘If there was money, would I be living here?’” she said, pointing to her shack.

Mr. Ramaphosa has said little of all this, but presented his version of events in an affidavit.

The president, an avid game breeder, said that his lodge manager had sold buffaloes to the Sudanese businessman, Hazim Mustafa Mohamed Ibrahim, for $580,000, then hid the money in a sofa in the president’s private residence because the manager worried that too many workers had access to a safe on the property.

Burglars swiped the cash about a month and a half later, Mr. Ramaphosa said. He says that he reported the theft to his head of security, who is a member of the South African police force.

An independent panel appointed by Parliament to consider impeachment said it doubted that the stolen dollars had actually come from the sale of game. Mr. Ramaphosa’s detractors have gleefully picked apart his account, particularly his explanation of how the money ended up in the couch.

“The money must be moved from the safe into the couch because it’s not safe in the safe, it’s safe in the couch?” asked Julius Malema, the leader of the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters. “He thinks we’re all fools like him.”

The Sudanese businessman, reached by telephone in Dubai, offered a version of events that largely tracks with the president’s. Mr. Ibrahim said that after declaring the cash on his arrival at the airport, he met his wife and her family at Sun City, a resort casino two and a half hours northwest of Johannesburg.

The housing search fell flat, he said. Realtors, apparently, weren’t keen to show property during the holidays. But Mr. Ibrahim, who said he owns an agriculture business and a Sudanese soccer team, refused to let his U.S. dollars go to waste.

He said he had a chance meeting with a game breeder at the resort. Mr. Ibrahim said he had never bought or sold game in his life, but he had already been brainstorming business ideas involving game. He was stingy with the details, but said it involved hunting.

So when the breeder suggested that he go to a farm called Phala Phala because it had a great reputation for its animals, Mr. Ibrahim said, he jumped at the opportunity. He went the following day, on Christmas, driving two hours through an area with many game farms that sell animals, and said he handed over the cash to purchase 20 buffaloes to be shipped to Dubai. He said he had no clue at the time who owned the farm.

But Mr. Ibrahim’s account breaks from the president’s in a crucial way. Mr. Ramaphosa said in his affidavit — to which a receipt of sale was attached — that he had sold buffaloes to Mr. Ibrahim. Mr. Ibrahim said in the interview that he had purchased Ankole, which is a breed of cattle — not buffalo. Asked about this discrepancy, Mr. Ibrahim insisted, incorrectly, that Ankole is a type of buffalo.

Some breeders said in interviews that $29,000 per buffalo is not outside the realm of possibility.

The animals were never delivered, Mr. Ibrahim said, because the Covid pandemic hit and travel was restricted.

He said that he was seeking a refund.

Mr. Ibrahim wonders what all the fuss is about. Toting large sums of cash and executing transactions on a whim were typical for him, as a businessman, he said. As we spoke by phone, he said he was in the middle of shipping a $33 million load of fertilizer — so what was $580,000 to him?

“For me, it’s not too much money,” he said, chuckling. “This big drama and dilemma is a dirty political game.”

South African legislators rejected an attempt this past week to start impeachment hearings against Mr. Ramaphosa. But now, whether or not he is re-elected party president at the A.N.C. conference, his legacy has taken a hit, said Kevin Malunga, a former deputy public protector, a corruption watchdog.

“The halo that he had when he started off as the clean guy,” Mr. Malunga said, “has suddenly not only tilted, but kind of fallen off.”

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