President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: GCIS/ELMOND JIYANE
President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: GCIS/ELMOND JIYANE

Public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane has made it clear that she regards President Cyril Ramaphosa as a liar whose election campaign funding for the 2017 ANC leadership race may have involved the laundering of more than R400m in donations.

Her findings are the most serious yet made against a sitting president, and come weeks after Mkhwebane accused Ramaphosa of “failing to uphold the constitution” by failing to take “appropriate legal action” against Pravin Gordhan — over the public enterprises minister’s authorisation of early retirement granted to then SA Revenue Service (Sars) deputy commissioner Ivan Pillay.

Gordhan, a Ramaphosa ally leading efforts to shore up the country’s debt-ridden state-owned companies, was head of Sars at the time. 

The findings, and the legal challenges that will no doubt follow them, represent the biggest test yet Ramaphosa has faced to his continued leadership of the ANC, and the country.

It’s unlikely that Ramaphosa will be removed from office soon. He should strike a balance between fending off those attacking his anticorruption agenda and actually getting down to the business of governing the country.

Ramaphosa will this week fight for an order that he did, in fact, comply with Mkhwebane’s remedial action by handing over a report showing how he would take action against Gordhan’s conduct in the Pillay matter. That action was always hamstrung by the fact Gordhan has launched a court challenge against Mkhwebane’s findings, his legal team says.

Further down the line, Ramaphosa will have to take on the public protector on her findings that he once broke the rules by wilfully misleading parliament about a R500,000 donation from scandal-hit and corruption-accused African Global Operations, formerly Bosasa.   

Mkhwebane maintains her demand is aimed at discovering who Ramaphosa may owe favours to, and is not driven by any nefarious desire to expose his sources of financial support. “We are busy with the state capture inquiry and we don’t want a situation where we have leaders, a president, who’s a constitutional being … owing some favours.” 

This is an extraordinary claim to make, and will provide ammunition to Ramaphosa’s enemies within the ANC who seek to undermine his anticorruption drive that should differentiate his administration from that of his scandal-plagued predecessor, Jacob Zuma.

It is commendable that Ramaphosa appears to be rising above internal ANC bickering, refraining to make any reference to Mkhwebane’s impartiality even as some of his supporters say she is using her office as a proxy for a party faction opposed to his agenda.

Mkhwebane does not buy the president’s assertion that he had made an honest mistake by telling parliament that the money was paid as part of consultancy agreement between African Global Operations and his son Andile, saying she has “evidence”, including emails, that show that Ramaphosa was fully aware of the source of the funding.

“The evidence … I have reflects that he was aware about the operations and the activities and the monies that were deposited and what monies must be moved from what account to what account,” she says.

So what is this evidence and how was it obtained? At this stage, we do not know. The content of the e-mails is not detailed in Friday’s investigation report, but if and when Ramaphosa takes that report on review it will have to be disclosed.

For now, Ramaphosa lives in the shadow of a report that suggests his campaign was a thinly veiled money-laundering operation, despite detailed responses from his lawyers to counter any suggestion that the accounts involved were used to “wash” the proceeds of crime.

It is imperative that whatever evidence led to these potentially history-changing findings is disclosed as soon as possible, and urgently subjected to independent judicial review.

If Ramaphosa’s leadership is to face a challenge, SA needs to know, for certain, what prima facie evidence Mkhwebane believes shows that he is a liar allegedly embroiled in organised crime — and why she has elected not to directly reveal it.