Cyril needs to disarm his enemies in the ANC, come clean on campaign funds

S'thembiso Msomi Without the Gang
Cyril Ramaphosa
Cyril Ramaphosa

After being mum the whole weekend, President Cyril Ramaphosa's office has finally commented on the leaked e-mails saga that seems to suggest he may not have been entirely truthful when he told public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane, and the public at large, that he was not involved in fundraising efforts for his CR17 campaign ahead of the ANC's presidential race in 2017.

News24 at the weekend reported on a number of leaked e-mails, some between Ramaphosa and his CR17 campaign managers, showing that the then deputy president had more than just a cursory interest in the drive to attract donors for his bid to become ANC president, and therefore president of the country.

Previously the president had claimed that CR17 kept a deliberate wall between him and their fundraising efforts and that he did not even know who the donors are.

But the e-mails, which appear to have been partly relied upon by Mkhwebane in her findings that Ramaphosa misled parliament about the donations, suggest otherwise. They suggest that, on a couple of occasions, Ramaphosa was kept abreast of developments - especially when it came to who was being approached for donations.

Considering that Ramaphosa came into power promising clean governance and a break with the capturing of the state by business interests that South Africa experienced under his predecessor Jacob Zuma, it was worrying to see him keeping quiet over the weekend.

It all seemed like we were back in the Zuma era, where the presidency would simply go to ground in the face of a storm, hoping that it would soon blow away without the president accounting for his alleged actions. In the event that it finally responded, the presidency would simply try to change the narrative, without actually responding directly to the allegations. In the Nkandla saga, for instance, there would be attacks directed at then public protector Thuli Madonsela from various pro-Zuma quarters without any of the then president's supporters engaging seriously with the contents of the public protector's report. As you know, that all ended in tears, for them.

Even for those of us who were always sceptical of Ramaphosa's New Dawn, there was a belief that he would be a huge improvement on his predecessor. That, even if he was unable to solve our seemingly intractable economic problems, he would run a clean administration that is based on openness and respect for the country's constitutional institutions. At the very least, we expected that - unlike his predecessor - Ramaphosa would not be allergic to truth, no matter how uncomfortable or embarrassing it might be.

He is certainly no Zuma, but his handling of the donations saga so far has left a bitter taste in the mouth. His silence over the weekend caused many to wonder if the president is trying to hide something from the public.

When his office finally spoke out, through spokesperson Khusela Diko, it went on the defensive.

Diko rightly pointed out that Ramaphosa was under no legal obligation to declare donations to his 2017 campaign. The whole controversy, she argued on eNCA, was nothing more than "smoke and mirrors".

"We are quite perturbed by the narrative being built around these e-mails. Yes, we appreciate that South Africans have a legitimate right to want to know who funded the campaign, but there was no obligation on the part of the president or the campaign to release that particular information… There is no regulation that requires for that information to be made public, and a lot of those donors would have donated because it was going to be confidential," she said.

But at issue here is not whether the president broke any law. It is simply whether he misled the public and a chapter 9 institution, in this case the office of the public protector, when he said he had an arms-length approach to the fundraising campaign that meant that he was kept in the dark as to who was contributing financially.

It is an important question given the fact that Ramaphosa is in this trouble because, in the first place, he gave an inaccurate answer when DA leader Mmusi Maimane first asked him in parliament about a R500,000 payment from controversial Bosasa CEO Gavin Watson which was later revealed by Ramaphosa to have been a donation to his campaign. Now many may have been willing to forgive the president for that, believing that he genuinely made a mistake and, on discovering that he had erred, he voluntarily corrected the information.

But did he make a mistake again when he subsequently said he was not directly involved in fundraising and therefore did not know who the donors were even though the leaked e-mails suggest that he was briefed about some of them?

The presidency has not suggested that the e-mails are fake, it has instead suggested that they were obtained illegally. "We do not want to cast aspersions on any person for the leaking of the e-mails. It’s a bit concerning… who is it that would have access to the head of state’s private communications?" Diko asked during her TV interview.

Indeed it would be concerning to learn that the president's private communication was being intercepted by rogue intelligence elements. But it would certainly not be surprising.Some of the country's spy agencies and operatives long embedded themselves with warring ANC factions. If, as it is alleged, some of them spied on the head of state and his close political associates in the early 2000s in a bid to promote a particular faction, what makes anyone think they will not do that to Ramaphosa?

After all, Ramaphosa did unseat a powerful ANC faction that had brought him back from "the cold" believing that he would not be any serious threat to its interests. As if losing to a man they had underestimated was not humiliating enough, some of the faction's key figures find themselves subjects of various inquiries Ramaphosa initiated and there is a realistic chance that some of them may even end up facing criminal charges. Hence the fightback.

Much of this fightback is on the information terrain, especially intelligence. If Ramaphosa is to win the battle, he should realise that keeping secrets would not help him. If, as he says, there was nothing illegal with his fundraising drive, let him be open about who funded his campaign and about the extent of his involvement in fundraising efforts. Yes, it would potentially be embarrassing for him in ANC circles in this era of faux-radical economic empowerment to admit that most of his donors were white, but in a country where real money is still in the hands of the white minority, who does not go to white business with a cap in hand?

Owning up to what happened during the campaign could be liberating for a Ramaphosa presidency that should be focused on more pressing matters such as the economy and reducing unemployment, rather than fighting fires. It would certainly disarm his adversaries.

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