South Africa: The Overstuffed Couch

21 December 2022

South Africa: The Overstuffed Couch
By Gwynne Dyer

“Don’t have a couch stuffed with cash? Don’t worry, you can keep reading for free,” read the ad on the website of the ‘Daily Maverick’, a tough and sometimes very funny South African news site. President Cyril Ramaphosa’s cash-stuffed sofa has become a powerful, universally recognised meme, but it still hasn’t brought him down.

Ramaphosa was Mr Clean, thought to be so rich that he wouldn’t need to steal. The job he sought and got in 2017 was to oust South Africa’s previous president, Jacob Zuma, and clean up the corruption.

Zuma and his cronies were spectacularly corrupt, turning the machinery of government into a cash dispenser for themselves in an operation known as ‘state capture’. Even the ruling African National Congress (ANC), which led the the liberation struggle and has been in power ever since, knew that he had gone too far. They voted Zuma out, and Ramaphosa in.

Once in office, he did act against some corrupt individuals, but there was certainly not the kind of decisive cleansing of the party that his backers had hoped for. Zuma’s faction continued to hold senior posts and influence policy, and five years later Ramaphosa is seen by many as a disappointment.

A disappointment, but at least not a crook, so for the want of a better candidate he was still seen as a shoo-in for reelection as president of the ANC at the end of this year – which would automatically make him the ANC’s candidate for the presidency of the whole country again in the national elections in 2024.

But then came the Affair of the Overstuffed Couch. Last June, a crony of Zuma’s reported a theft to the courts – a theft of somewhere between $400,000 and $4 million which had been stuffed down the back of a sofa on Ramaphosa’s game farm in northern South Africa.

Ramaphosa did not report the theft, as he was legally obliged to. Instead, he sent the head of his bodyguard to Namibia to recover the stolen money, and said nothing about it. Maybe it wasn’t the proceeds of corruption, but at the very least he was hiding money that he should have reported and paid tax on.

No longer Mr Clean, Ramaphosa was nevertheless chosen again as party leader and presidential candidate for 2024 at the ANC’s national conference last weekend, mainly because they had no more plausible candidate. But it was close: Ramaphosa got 2,476 votes, and the pro-corruption, pro-Zuma candidate, Zweli Mkhize, got 1,897.

How has it come to this? The ANC was once revered as the ideal model of an African liberation movement; now it’s a cesspool.

Just as the evil of apartheid could not survive in an Africa that was leaving colonial values behind, the high-minded idealism of the philosopher kings, Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, was bound to give way eventually to the grubby wheeling and dealing of lesser ANC members.

The current ANC membership are driven by a boundless sense of entitlement. They sacrificed for the country, they believe, so now it’s the country’s turn to reward them. It was almost bound to wind up here, but this isn’t the end-point either.

The ANC will almost certainly lose its majority in parliament for the first time in 2024. It will probably survive a while longer by forming various coalitions with other parties, but the entitlement will have to go. And maybe – just maybe – South Africa will be able to move on to a more normal kind of politics.

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘The Shortest History of War’.