Ramaphosa’s Disputes with Public Protector to Escalate

On 1 July, Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane accused President Cyril Ramaphosa of failing to uphold the constitution, by ignoring the remedial action required by her report into the allegations of wrongdoing at the South African Revenue Service (SARS). Ramaphosa has argued that the remedial action should only be instituted once a review process is finalized. Although the issue is largely a legal matter at this point, the dispute between Mkhwebane and Ramaphosa is likely to escalate and become an increasingly political matter. Mkhwebane is also in the process of finalizing a report into allegations that Ramaphosa violated the Executive Ethics Act by misleading parliament when questioned over a payment to his ANC election campaign from Bosasa, a company that has been accused of corruption at the State Capture Inquiry. These disputes will distract Ramaphosa from government business and provide his political opponents, both in the ANC and beyond, with ammunition to attack his anti-corruption platform.

The public protector’s report was released in May 2019, shortly before the elections. It requires Ramaphosa to discipline Minister of Public Enterprises Pravin Gordhan for improper conduct for having allowed former SARS Deputy Commissioner Ivan Pillay to take early retirement with full pension benefits. In a letter to Ramaphosa on 26 June, Mkhwebane accused the president of failing to implement her required remedial actions. However, as Gordhan is reviewing the report, Ramaphosa feels that it would be premature to discipline him until the review process is concluded. The president also submitted an implementation plan, but Mkhwebane has responded that her findings are binding unless Ramaphosa obtains a court injunction.

This legal tussle has now spilled over into the political arena. On 2 July, the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) said that Ramaphosa’s position was a direct insult to the constitution. The EFF opposed Gordhan’s reappointment to the cabinet and continues to use Mkhwebane’s report to portray him as a “constitutional delinquent.” On the other hand, Mkhwebane’s actions have raised questions over her possible political motives; the Democratic Alliance (DA) and others have accordingly called for her removal. The DA has pushed parliament to hold an inquiry into Mkhwebane’s fitness to hold office but has yet to secure support from the ANC.

The ANC is divided on Mkhwebane’s position but unlikely to support her removal at this point, with Ramaphosa the focus of another public protector inquiry. If it did, the faction supporting her removal would be accused of acting to protect Ramaphosa. The public protector’s draft report into the Ramaphosa matter found that he had breached the Executive Ethics Act by providing two different versions of events to parliament when attempting to explain a 500,000 rand ($35,000) payment from Bosasa to his son Andile. Ramaphosa initially said that it was because his son was working for Bosasa, which was the case at the time, but then said that it was made to his campaign fund without his knowledge. Andile subsequently resigned from his consulting position at Bosasa.

In addition to the issue being an unwanted distraction given the many urgent issues that require government attention, the public protector’s findings could be used to politically damage Ramaphosa. The latter has reportedly presented Mkhwebane with a pack of documents to challenge her initial findings. If Mkhwebane maintains that Ramaphosa breached the Executive Ethics Act, the report is likely to be taken on review. Some of his opponents will look to use the negative findings to raise the prospect of recalling Ramaphosa, but that is unlikely to succeed at this point. As a result, EFF leader Julius Malema’s forecast that Deputy President David Mabuza would take over from Ramaphosa on the basis of the public protector’s report is premature. However, findings against Ramaphosa would tarnish his reputation and make it more difficult for him to take action against compromised officials.