JOHANNESBURG – Embroiled in controversy, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on Friday refused to answer questions about his alleged cover-up of a theft of large amounts of cash from his farm, saying only that he will appear before his party's integrity committee over the accusations.
Ramaphosa, 69, endured a second day of being shouted down in Parliament by opposition members before being peppered with questions from the press over the growing scandal.
Ramaphosa is facing allegations of money laundering, bribery and breaking South Africa's foreign currency laws over the theft, which reportedly involved $4 million in cash being stolen two years ago from his Phala Phala game farm in the northern Limpopo province.
He has confirmed that the theft took place and has denied any wrongdoing. He has said the money came from the sale of animals from the game farm. But Ramaphosa has dodged all questions seeking specific information about the robbery.
He repeatedly declined to answer questions from reporters including: How much cash was stolen? How did he obtain the foreign currency? Was it legally declared to South African authorities? Did he try to cover up his possession of the cash by bribing the thieves to keep quiet?
The story of the theft came to light earlier this month when the country's former intelligence chief, Arthur Fraser, filed a criminal complaint with police alleging that Ramaphosa had tried to cover up the robbery.
Fraser alleges that Ramaphosa had been keeping the cash hidden in furniture at his ranch when it was stolen. Instead of reporting the theft to police, Ramaphosa tried to cover it up by having members of his presidential protection unit track down the thieves, said Fraser in the affidavit filed with police.
Ramaphosa told reporters at the parliament complex in Cape Town that he wanted a full investigation to take place before answering questions about it.
“Let the due process happen as regards things like was this laundering of money ... the issue of how much money was there," Ramaphosa said. “I’d like to hold onto that. And I do that with respect because ... I’m a process person. The process must unfold.”
Ramaphosa said he has offered to appear before his African National Congress party's integrity committee. A date for that hearing has not yet been set, he said. If Ramaphosa is found to have broken the law or the party's ethics code, the ANC committee could ask him to step aside as the party's leader or suspend him, which could be the first step to Parliament removing him as president.
The scandal surrounding the farm theft is the biggest challenge to Ramaphosa's leadership of Africa's most developed economy and comes six months before a critical party elective conference in December, when Ramaphosa had already been expected to face a tough battle to be re-elected the party's leader.
Earlier, his attempts to speak in Parliament were disrupted for a second straight day as opposition lawmakers confronted him. Lawmakers from the populist Economic Freedom Fighters, the second biggest opposition party in Parliament, scuffled with security guards as they shouted that Ramaphosa should not be allowed to address the house. Eventually they were removed from parliament.
But not before they loudly and repeatedly accused Ramaphosa of laundering money and trying to hide it. The party is also demanding that Ramaphosa step down as president pending the investigations into the theft.
“The president of the republic, there are serious allegations against him, so he can’t come to the house to address us. He must step aside and allow the law to take its course,” protested EFF lawmaker Omphile Maotwe, interrupting Ramaphosa's attempts to speak.
Ramaphosa also told lawmakers that the robbery is under investigation and that “the law must be able to take its course.”
“I have listened very carefully to the views of members of this house who have raised thoughts, suggestions and proposals on this matter," said Ramaphosa. “Some of the views have been to counsel me, and yet others have been laced with insults. I will not respond to insults, but will say that the counsel and suggestions that have been made raise points that I will consider.”
Appearing exhausted after the tumultuous time in parliament, Ramaphosa then fended off questions at the press conference over what is called “farmgate.” At the end of the briefing, he turned to an aide and said: “Can I go home now?”
Magome reported from Johannesburg.