Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: GCIS
Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: GCIS

President Cyril Ramaphosa has moved to stem growing public anger over allegations of corruption that are undermining the country’s Covid-19 efforts.

While Ramaphosa had harsh words for the perpetrators of corruption, saying profiting from the pandemic was an act of scavengers and a heinous crime, labour federation and ANC ally Cosatu warned that it would part ways with his administration “if corruption is left unchecked and workers are not protected against a deadly virus”.

Ramaphosa won the presidency on an anti-corruption ticket, and pressure is mounting on him to act on allegations that have surfaced amid a global pandemic that’s devastating the economy, with business closures set to push the country’s record 30% unemployment rate even higher. More than 500,000 people in SA have tested positive, with almost 8,400 deaths.

The allegations relating to tenders for the procurement of personal protective equipment (PPEs) has seen both his spokesperson, Khusela Diko, and Gauteng health MEC Bandile Masuku take a leave of absence pending the outcome of investigations by the Special Investigating Unit. Allegations have also emerged against ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule’s two sons.

Ramaphosa’s son Andile is involved in a project to provide a safety feature for taxis to limit the spread of Covid-19, through his non-profit company, SDI Force, though there are no state funds involved in that project, according to the Sunday Times.

Ramaphosa said in his weekly newsletter that “attempting to profit from a disaster that is claiming the lives of our people every day is the action of scavengers. It is like a pack of hyenas circling wounded prey.”  He said SA, which finds itself in the grip of its greatest health emergency in over a century, was “witnessing theft by individuals and companies with no conscience”.

“They have opened up the wounds of the state capture era, where senior figures in society seemed to get away with corruption on a grand scale,” Ramaphosa said.

When he came to office in 2018, Ramaphosa made the fight against corruption one of the key pillars of his presidency. That included rebuilding the capacity in SA’s law enforcement agencies, which were decimated during former president Jacob Zuma’s term.

Cosatu said on Monday that while corruption predated Ramaphosa’s administration, “the dysfunction and feebleness of his administration in the face of this crisis is alarming”.

The increased frustration from Cosatu is politically significant as the trade union federation was the first ANC-linked formation to endorse Ramaphosa to become president of the ANC ahead of its elective conference in Nasrec in December 2017.

In the face of no drastic movement in the fight against corruption, unions’ support for Ramaphosa is increasingly under pressure from different sides. The unions oppose the government’s commitment to slash the public service wage bill. Their discomfort has been worsened by reports of  front-line workers having to do their jobs while not having enough PPEs.

“If the government is not willing to fight corruption and protect workers, the federation will encourage workers to fight back by any means necessary, including withdrawing their labour,” Cosatu said.

The federation said political weakness keeps on producing economic weakness.

“The ANC under his leadership continues to be seen as a rent-seeking, unaccountable caste. The president needs to act decisively and prove that his administration is not a powerless scarecrow with rubber teeth,” Cosatu said.

The call by Cosatu follows a meeting by the ANC’s national executive meeting over the weekend. The Sunday Times reported that the heated meeting was split along pre-Nasrec factional lines as leaders allegedly squabbled over how to deal with corruption allegations levelled against its leaders. ​

Meanwhile, the DA’s interim leader, John Steenhuisen, has written to National Assembly speaker Thandi Modise calling on her to schedule an urgent parliamentary debate on the misappropriation of funds relating to Covid-19 tenders. The party wants Ramaphosa summoned to parliament to answer for the “behaviour of his party’s members and set out exactly how he intends to act against each and every implicated individual”.

 The EFF also asked for an inquiry into alleged corruption in the procurement of PPE, distribution of food parcels and other Covid-related expenses.

Modise is considering these two requests.

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