south africa rejects impeachment inquiry of president cyril ramaphosa

Legislators with the African National Congress party voted not to hold impeachment hearings of their embattled president, Cyril Ramaphosa, giving him a political lift amid the scandal known as “Farmgate.”

JOHANNESBURG — Lawmakers from South Africa’s governing African National Congress put their weight behind President Cyril Ramaphosa on Tuesday, rejecting an effort to proceed with an impeachment inquiry over accusations that he broke the law in his response to the theft of a large sum of U.S. currency from his farm.

The vote essentially kills an effort to remove Mr. Ramaphosa from office and lifts his political prospects just three days before the start of a national conference for his party, the A.N.C., at which he is expected to face a grueling battle to win a second term as party leader.

The A.N.C. holds 230 of the 400 seats in Parliament, and his opponents fell far short of the 31 A.N.C. members they needed to break ranks and vote for impeachment hearings. In all, 214 members of Parliament voted against continuing with the inquiry, while 148 voted in favor of it.

Last week, the A.N.C.’s executive committee instructed its members to reject impeachment, making it difficult for any of them to vote the other way because the party appoints them to Parliament. Breaking with instructions could have serious repercussions within the organization, including losing their seats.

Still, a handful of A.N.C. lawmakers did defy the order.

“As a disciplined member of the A.N.C., I vote yes,” said Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a minister in Mr. Ramaphosa’s cabinet who has criticized him heavily and challenged him for president of the party. Several allies of former President Jacob Zuma, who was dogged by corruption allegations during his tenure that eventually forced him from office, also voted for the impeachment process.

Gwede Mantashe, the chairman of the A.N.C., told reporters after the vote that party members who voted in favor of impeachment proceedings would be reported to the organization’s officials and could face discipline.

“When we have discussion as a party and take decisions, they must be binding,” Mr. Mantashe said.

The report calling for impeachment hearings, issued by a three-member panel appointed by Parliament, said that Mr. Ramaphosa may have violated the Constitution and the law when he failed to tell the police about the break-in at his farm, and by conducting private business that conflicted with his duties as a public official.

Before the vote, opposition parties had lobbied for a secret ballot, in the hope that it would give Mr. Ramaphosa’s critics within the A.N.C. more breathing room to ignore party leaders. Some claimed that they had received anonymous death threats, warning them not to back the impeachment process. But the speaker of Parliament, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, a senior A.N.C. member, rejected that effort.

In the debate preceding the vote, members of Mr. Ramaphosa’s party defended him, pointing to the panel report’s limited investigation. “The panel’s report has set the bar too low to impeach a sitting president,” said Justice Minister Ronald Lamola.

Outnumbered opposition lawmakers tried to appeal to members of the ruling party. “The hate that exists in your party is impacting negatively on the entire 60 million people in this country,” said Ahmed Munzoor Shaik Emam, a member of the National Freedom Party.

Mr. Ramaphosa has filed a petition in court challenging the report calling for an impeachment inquiry, arguing that it was legally deficient and accusing the panel of treating him unfairly by going beyond its original scope.

Parliament created the system of convening a panel to make a recommendation on impeachment several years ago after the nation’s highest court ruled that the A.N.C. had failed to hold Mr. Zuma accountable for misusing public funds. It was meant to allow for a nonpolitical assessment of a president’s conduct.

But the panel could not interview witnesses or subpoena records. Instead, it mostly reviewed information obtained from members of Parliament, much of which was based on media reports and other secondhand accounts of what occurred at the president’s farm.

The outcome, opposition leaders said, was that the system has essentially remained the same: The A.N.C. could choose to shield its leaders from accountability.

“The A.N.C. has not learned anything,” said Julius Malema, a former A.N.C. member who is now the leader of the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters. “It is rotten to the core. It has got no ability to self-correct.”

Mr. Ramaphosa has been under intense scrutiny since June, when a political opponent filed a criminal complaint against him for not reporting the burglary at his game farm, Phala Phala Wildlife.

Esa Alexander/Reuters

The complaint, filed by Arthur Fraser, the former head of state security in South Africa, said that between $4 million and $8 million hidden in a sofa had been stolen in February 2020, and it accused Mr. Ramaphosa of enlisting the head of his security detail to open an off-the-books investigation that led to the kidnapping and torture of the suspects in the case.

The president has denied any wrongdoing. He said the amount stolen was significantly less, $580,000, and that the money came from the sale of 20 buffaloes to a Sudanese businessman on Christmas Day in 2019.

The parliamentary panel, which included two retired judges and a lawyer, was skeptical of Mr. Ramaphosa’s version of events and questioned whether the money stolen actually came from the sale of game.

Mr. Ramaphosa considered resigning after the panel released its report last month, advisers said, but his allies rallied around him and urged him to fight back.

He has since forged ahead with his presidential duties and his quest for re-election as the president of the A.N.C. — a status that would almost guarantee him a second term as president of the country.

The president has staked much of his tenure on cleaning up the corruption within the A.N.C. and the government that has damaged the country’s economy and reputation, and contributed to a significant loss of electoral support for a party that established itself as a moral force in the apartheid era.

His main rival for party president at the conference, scheduled to begin on Friday, is Zweli Mkhize. He served as health minister under Mr. Ramaphosa until becoming entangled in his own corruption scandal over a communications contract that his ministry awarded to a company owned by close associates. Mr. Mkhize did not attend the vote in Parliament.

He has told reporters that the executive committee, which he belongs to, had bullied members into deciding not to pursue impeachment. He said that members of Parliament needed to be given space to make up their own minds.

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