A businessman, buffaloes and a sofa full of money: the alibi of a president

Phala Phala Wildlife, the game farm owned by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, near Bela Bela, South Africa, on December 9, 2022. A bizarre scandal involving the game farm threatens to oust South African President Cyril Ramaphosa from the leadership of the African National Congress, which begins its five-day party conference on Friday.  (Joao Silva/The New York Times)

Phala Phala Wildlife, the game farm owned by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, near Bela Bela, South Africa, on December 9, 2022. A bizarre scandal involving the game farm threatens to oust South African President Cyril Ramaphosa from the leadership of the African National Congress, which begins its five-day party conference on Friday. (Joao Silva/The New York Times)

JOHANNESBURG — The story begins when a Sudanese businessman landed at the Johannesburg airport two days before Christmas 2019, according to his account, with a carry-on suitcase containing $600,000 in cash. He said that he wanted to surprise his South African wife for her birthday and buy a house.

Instead, according to Cyril Ramaphosa, the president of South Africa, that money somehow ended up hidden inside a sofa at his game farm’s private residence.

This complicated story, and whether it is credible, is the subject of a scandal that has gripped South Africa and threatens to unseat Ramaphosa from the presidency.

Sign up for the New York Times The Morning newsletter

On Friday his party, the African National Congress, convenes its national conference, which is held every five years, where some 4,000 delegates will decide whether to elect Ramaphosa to a second term as leader. Given the ANC’s dominance in South African politics, the person elected president of the party has always become the president of South Africa.

A Nelson Mandela protégé, Ramaphosa, 70, rose to power five years ago hoping to save the ANC, a once-vaunted liberation movement that now faces a reckoning for rampant corruption and the lack of provision of basic services.

His rhetoric about good governance and record as a businessman gave South Africans hope he would clean house and help the ANC focus on rescuing Africa’s most industrialized economy.

But now much of the country, including opposition lawmakers, political analysts and even some of the president’s allies, can’t help but wonder if he simply represents the same old corruption of the ruling elite.

“Unfortunately, he now has that cloud over his head,” said Lindiwe Zulu, a senior ANC official and a member of the president’s cabinet who has supported him. Referring to the scandal, he said: “People are going to ask a question: ‘How the hell do you have something like that being president?’ ”

The scandal known as Farmgate erupted in June after Arthur Fraser, a former South African spy chief and Ramaphosa’s political opponent, filed a criminal complaint accusing him of failing to report to police the theft of at least $4 million from the farm. of the president.

Fraser accused the president of instructing his security chief to conduct an undercover investigation, which resulted in the kidnapping and torture of the robbery suspects, some of whom fled across the border into Namibia.

One such suspect, Floriana Joseph, a housekeeper at the president’s game farm, Phala Phala Wildlife, was accused in Fraser’s complaint of helping to plot the robbery and was later paid off by the president to keep quiet.

Joseph lives in a small settlement, Vingerkraal, a series of boxy tin huts on dirt lots housing many Namibian exiles, about a 45-minute drive from Phala Phala. On a recent visit with reporters from The Times, he kept his guard up as he spoke, eyebrows raised, cradling his son.

Joseph, 28, said he’s never seen money on the president’s couch, let alone coordinated a robbery. The first time he heard about the robbery, he said, was in a report on a local radio station in June. No investigator had questioned her before that, he said, contradicting an affidavit from the president’s security chief, who said he interviewed her in March 2020, about a month after the robbery.

Now, he suspects that shady figures are willing to set him up. In the past few months, she said, random people have turned up looking for her. Some say they are with the police, while others have refused to identify themselves. Now he photographs all the cars that arrive.

In one case, Joseph said, two men tricked her mother, who is illiterate, into filing a police complaint saying Joseph had been kidnapped in 2020, a ploy she said by Ramaphosa’s opponents to give credence to the allegations at Fraser’s. complaint.

Around September, she said, two men surprised her while she was out shopping in the nearby town of Bela Bela. Badges that looked like police identification cards hung from her neck, she said, and they demanded that she take them to her bank. They ordered him to print her account statements and deliver them to them, probably in an effort to find evidence of stolen money or a bribe from the president.

“I told all these people who kept coming back, ‘If there was money, would I be living here?’ She said, pointing to his hut.

Ramaphosa has said little about all this, but he presented his version of events in an affidavit.

The president, an avid animal breeder, said his lodge manager had sold buffalo to Sudanese businessman Hazim Mustafa Mohamed Ibrahim for $580,000 and then hid the money on a sofa in the president’s private residence because the manager was concerned that too many workers had access to a safe on the property.

The thieves stole the cash about a month and a half later, Ramaphosa said. He says that he reported the theft to his head of security, who is a member of the South African police. And Ramaphosa said Fraser’s allegation that more than $4 million was stolen was misplaced.

An independent panel appointed by Parliament to consider the indictment said it doubted the stolen dollars really came from the sale of games. Ramaphosa’s detractors have gleefully criticized his account, particularly his explanation of how the money ended up on the sofa.

“The money needs to be moved from the safe to the couch because it’s not safe in the safe, is it safe on the couch?” asked Julius Malema, the leader of the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters. He thinks we are all fools like him.

The Sudanese businessman, contacted by phone in Dubai, offered a version of events that largely coincides with that of the president. Ibrahim said that after declaring the cash upon his arrival at the airport, he met his wife and his family at Sun City, a tourist casino two and a half hours northwest of Johannesburg.

The housing search failed, he said. Real estate agents were apparently unwilling to show properties during the holidays. But Ibrahim, who said he owns a Sudanese farm business and soccer team, refused to let his US dollars go to waste.

He said he had the opportunity to meet with a game breeder at the complex. Ibrahim said that he had never bought or sold games in his life, but he had already been thinking of game-related business ideas. He was stingy with the details, but said it was about hunting.

So when the breeder suggested he go to a farm called Phala Phala because it had a great reputation for its animals, Ibrahim said, he jumped at the chance. It was the next day, Christmas, he drove two hours through an area with many game farms that sell animals, and he said he handed over the cash to buy 20 buffaloes to send to Dubai. He said that at the time he had no idea who owned the farm.

But Ibrahim’s account differs from the president’s in crucial ways. Ramaphosa said in his affidavit, to which was attached a sales receipt, that he had sold buffaloes to Ibrahim. Ibrahim said in the interview that he had bought Ankole, which is a breed of cattle, not buffalo. When asked about this discrepancy, Ibrahim insisted, incorrectly, that Ankole is a type of buffalo.

Some breeders said in interviews that $29,000 per buffalo is not out of the realm of possibility.

The animals were never delivered, Ibrahim said, because the COVID-19 pandemic struck and travel was restricted.

He said he was looking for a refund.

Ibrahim wonders why all the fuss. Carrying large sums of cash and executing transactions on a whim were typical for him as a businessman, he said. While we were talking on the phone, he said he was in the middle of shipping a $33 million load of fertilizer, so what was $580,000 to him?

“For me, it’s not a lot of money,” he said with a laugh. “This great drama and dilemma is a dirty political game.”

South African lawmakers last week rejected an attempt to launch impeachment hearings against Ramaphosa. But now, whether or not he is re-elected party chairman at the ANC conference, his legacy has been affected, said Kevin Malunga, a former deputy public protector, a corruption watchdog.

“The halo that he had when he started out as the clean guy,” Malunga said, “suddenly not just tipped over, it fell over.”

© 2022 The New York Times Company

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *