By Melusi Ncala
First published on News24
Is President Cyril Ramaphosa gaslighting the society that he swore to serve and protect? This is one explanation for the fact that he still occupies the presidential office, cloaked in his reformist and anti-corruption cape – yet the Phala Phala scandal, broken down to its bare tenets, is a classic form of corruption and criminality.
If not, as one of the founders of the Constitution of the Republic, why else would he nonchalantly and publicly speak on the Phala Phala saga as though nothing is absurd about the events that occurred on his private property?
In the early days of June 2022, news broke that Ramaphosa found himself in the middle of a fresh controversy. While the country was reeling from the onset of Covid-19 in the first quarter of 2020, the head of government was discharging state security personnel to handle the alleged theft of stashed money at his private home and business in Limpopo.
The persons accused of stealing the cash are said to be Ramaphosa’s employee and Namibian nationals. The millions of rand were reportedly for the sale of buffalo – a sale that, according to the Public Protector’s findings, was neither completed nor even intended, for the buffalo remain on the farm.
In the president’s version, Ramaphosa says that, while abroad, he reported the incident to his head of protection. An investigation thus ensued led by Major-General Wally Rhoode.
Importantly though, as a constitutionalist and lawyer, Ramaphosa recounts this pivotal detail matter-of-factly without appreciating that he may have erred in his handling of the matter between him and Rhoode.
Outside the political noise that South Africa drowns in every day, were we to look at this matter from an understanding of graft in the world of anti-corruption activism, we would realise that all the signs of wrongdoing are prevalent.
Abuse of power
Corruption Watch (CW) tests the tens of thousands of corruption reports we receive against our working definition of corruption – the abuse of entrusted power for personal or private gain. I contend that this framing is more morally just and socially conscientious than the Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Activities Act, which defines corruption as “any person who gives or accepts or offers to give or accept any gratification amounting to an unauthorised or improper inducement to act or not to act”.
Whereas the emphasis on the former of these definitions is on the power relations between those with authority and means, the latter mainly focuses on “gratification” received or given by and to any person.
So, when CW receives complaints, they are allocated to categories of various forms of corruption and from there into relevant focus areas. For instance, if a woman informed us that she went to the police to open a case of domestic abuse, but an official refused to assist her unless she slept with him, we would regard the incident as sextortion occurring within the domain of the South African Police Service. The official in this example is using and abusing his authority and power to his benefit.
What makes the Phala Phala incident quite extraordinary is that it has the gross details of cross-border criminal activity, loads of foreign currency, and an unethical politician. Deon Meyer’s fictional world has just come to life, and you can only shake your head in disgust.
State resources for state purposes only
Working within the sociopolitical paradigm of corruption, I believe that we are obliged to ask – has the president of South Africa misappropriated resources by using state personnel to handle a private matter? Within this subtype of corruption, a person is given the legal responsibility over funds, materials, equipment, machinery, staff etc., but instead of using the resources for their intended purpose, they are dishonestly appropriated for personal or private affairs. This type of misconduct includes, among others, theft, the misuse of goods and services, and the embezzlement of funds.
Were the Phala Phala incident reported to Corruption Watch, our analysis would likely lead me to think that the allegations straddle the intersection of public and private sector corruption. This is historically where most cases of impropriety gathered by the organisation are located.
By virtue of his position, there is a conflict between Ramaphosa’s role as a head of state and a private businessman.
The conflict arises from the fact that where his declared personal interests are concerned, instead of opening a case at the nearest police station, he initially relied on state resources meant to protect him as the president of South Africa and not his private dealings. After all, his life was not in danger. Thus, he could have relied upon his private staff, family, or friends to handle the matter in his absence.
The meeting of public and private sector corruption is not where it ends, though, because people often mistakenly think that with corruption, there needs to be material gain and that the benefit derives from the public purse. In our troubled country this is understandable – what was stolen from the people could have been used to alleviate so many social stresses.
As logical as this view is, there are other insidious forms of wrongdoing which I would argue set the foundation for what we easily point out as wrong today. These include, among others, abuse of authority and dereliction of duty.
Acting Public Protector Kholeka Gcaleka, in her recently released – and knowledgeably criticised – investigation report into the matter, bizarrely blames the president’s head of protection services for the misuse or abuse of resources. Rhoode is supposed to be rapped over the knuckles, yet the acting Public Protector does not pronounce on the person who gave the orders.
However, it is the head of the executive who called upon his security detail to look into the theft of his dollars at his private farm.
This is not a financial gain, but it highlights concerns about the state’s protection services resources being used in a private investigation and, more importantly, Ramaphosa’s judgement.
Let us also remember that in the 2016 Nkandla judgment, the apex court asserted that the “president has the duty to ensure that state resources are used only for the advancement of state interests”. And in that instance, it referred to a president who denied any knowledge of what was happening at his residence. Therefore, though some may argue that it is reasonable for Ramaphosa to have discharged the protection services given debatable guidelines in the presidential handbook, is it ethical in a country where corruption is rife, and citizens have little trust in his office and other institutions?
This situation does not vastly differ from school officials or police officers using state assets to conduct their private affairs. These individuals are often accused of using state vehicles in their personal affairs and their defence is that “it was a quick stop, and the car is with me at all times”.
As an organisation and as a nation, we deplore this improper conduct and have a lot of contempt for those public servants guilty of it. But what are they to think, say, or do if their leader admits to doing something similar?
Precedents long since set
The conflict that arises from the Phala Phala account is troubling not only because it appears to be an activity of wrongdoing on several fronts, but also because the main character has a questionable past. Moreover, because South Africans are alert to corruption, wise to political trickery, and refuse to be silenced by flimsy reasoning, the questions still linger.
What baffles me regarding this corruption case is that precedent on certain of its facets has been set in all spheres of society. In a country governed by common sense, employees found to be abusing company or state belongings, money, or time would be dismissed or resign. I grew up in working-class communities where people would lose their employment for spending unauthorised time on a telephone or working two or more jobs.
Considering the enormity of the corruption problem that we face as a people, we do not deserve the antics of a political elite who apply accountability selectively as opposed to justly righting wrongs. Combating corruption requires those in authority to have integrity and institutions to earn public confidence. These are not attributes that we can always, and concretely, cater for in law. Thus, when a person ascends to the highest office in the land, it is reasonable to expect that he or she will not only confine themselves to legalities, but will apply themselves in terms of the spirit in which those laws were established too.
The Phala Phala matter could be viewed as a case of misappropriation of resources by a person who abused his entrusted power. The first citizen, who, we are told, helped draft South Africa’s Constitution, seemingly misappropriated state resources – and for that alone, he should fall on his sword.