An ongoing impeachment process in South Africa reached a critical point when the investigating panel declared on 30 November that President Cyril Ramaphosa likely violated the constitution and committed serious misconduct regarding the Phala Phala corruption scandal. The panel's findings were so grave that the president considered resigning at once, but he was persuaded by his allies to try to survive the scandal through political and legal means.
It is clear from events following the panel report that the ruling African National Congress (ANC) did not prepare for the current crisis – even though the impeachment process began in August. Now, the party is battling to find an acceptable way out of the crisis as it prepares to elect new leaders later this month. Below, we envisage what will happen over the next three months.
1. Judicial review
Ramaphosa may attempt to have the panel findings against him reviewed in court. The panel was formed by parliament per Section 89 of the constitution, and it comprises independent experts led by former chief justice Sandile Ngcobo. Their procedure and judgement are unlikely to be questioned by the judiciary, but the main gain for Ramaphosa is that seeking a review would buy him space to run for ANC president this month and try to rally more support within the party rather than resign immediately.
The next step in the impeachment process is that the parliament will debate Ngcobo's findings and decide whether to advance by forming a special committee. This committee would be composed of lawmakers from all parties represented in the parliament, and its responsibility would be to investigate Ngcobo's findings further and make a recommendation to the parliament. The matter would then be put to a vote and a two-thirds majority would immediately remove the president from office.
However, the ruling ANC has about 58% of seats in the National Assembly. This is enough to scuttle the impeachment process and bail out Ramaphosa – as the party did for his predecessor Jacob Zuma when that president faced impeachment over corruption in 2017. We infer from the precedent that the party will again attempt to resolve the current crisis through its own measures rather than support the opposition to unseat its leader through impeachment.
The ANC ‘recalled' Zuma two years after saving him from impeachment. This means it told him to leave his position as president of the country and allow Ramaphosa to replace him. But at that time, Ramaphosa had already been president of ANC for two months having recently won the party's own internal election. A transition now would be less straightforward.
The party's internal elections will be held on 16 December as previously scheduled, and Ramaphosa will try to run for a second term. He was expected to defeat his main opponent Zweli Mkhize to remain ANC president, but now the race will be more closely contested. This race will present the party with an opportunity to change its leader on its own terms.
Ramaphosa's re-election as ANC president would only breed more resentment and worsen divisions in the party considering the Phala Phala probe findings against him. He has lectured the party about corruption and enforced a rule requiring the party's members to step aside if they are charged for corruption or serious misconduct. On this note, the party's secretary-general ‘Ace' Magashule, a Ramaphosa rival, was removed. Mkhize, who is now running for ANC president, was also made to resign as Ramaphosa's health minister. The president further suspended the country's public protector while an impeachment inquiry into her fitness for office was still in progress. His continued stay in office would be perceived by many in the ANC as unfair and as double standards.
On the other hand, voting a new leader would present the ANC with a more acceptable path toward mending its divisions and making a fresh start ahead of 2024 general elections. All three of the party's living ex-presidents called for accountability regarding Ramaphosa and Phala Phala last month. Now, a transition would be a major step for that accountability to happen.
Speaking to Bloomberg on Friday (2 December), Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana sought to reassure markets that policy emerges from the party, and not the president . Consequently, the economic programme will persist along the lines set by recent statements such as the recent budget.
And yet, core aspects of the government agenda have been made vulnerable by the impeachment process. GDP grew 0.2% year-on-year unadjusted in the second quarter of this year as operational and financial troubles at the state utility, Eskom, continued to hinder economic recovery. One report published last month about the energy crisis suggests there have been nearly two times more loadshedding this year than last. Meanwhile, the Zondo commission of inquiry has concluded a four-year probe and showed how state capture occurred under the Zuma administration.
Ramaphosa had the responsibility of reform. However, it is now evident that the president now lacks the moral and political legitimacy to carry out that responsibility. This means government efficiency would be slowed should he continue to resist calls for his resignation through political and legal means. The president has long been perceived as being indecisive. Now, in the short-term, any conviction to act on investment-related reforms will be eroded by the Phala Phala revelations and the subsequent fallout.
In another scenario, a successor would also likely focus on repairing broken ANC relations and preparing the party for general elections in May 2024 – knowing he or she does not yet have a popular mandate to pursue their own economic agenda. The ANC failed to get up to 50% of total votes when municipal elections were held last year. It was the first time the ANC's share of votes in nationwide elections fell below 50% since apartheid ended. It raised the possibility that the ruling party will see its majority in parliament shrink in 2024, forcing it to govern through a coalition with opposition parties. Forestalling this possibility will be the main consideration for government policymaking no matter who is in charge over the next 18 months.
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