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In South Africa, a Scandal Threatens Ramaphosa’s Presidency

An independent panel’s findings have thrown the embattled leader’s political future into jeopardy.

By , a reporter at Foreign Policy.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa attends a World Economic Forum breakfast.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa attends a World Economic Forum breakfast.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa looks on during the World Economic Forum breakfast at the Hilton Hotel in Johannesburg on Jan. 18, 2018. GULSHAN KHAN/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, where we’re looking at South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s uncertain political fate, Spain’s tightened security after cases of letter bombs, and African countries’ new mpox vaccine doses.

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Will Ramaphosa Hang On?

Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, where we’re looking at South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s uncertain political fate, Spain’s tightened security after cases of letter bombs, and African countries’ new mpox vaccine doses.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.


Will Ramaphosa Hang On?

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa is scrambling to salvage his presidency after an independent panel found that he may have violated the country’s constitution, fueling opposition leaders’ demands for his resignation and potentially paving the way for an impeachment hearing

The case in question—known as “Farmgate”—dates back to 2020, when burglars stole a vast sum of foreign cash from the president’s game ranch. But Ramaphosa never reported the theft. The revelations only came to light in June, when a political rival accused him of graft and concealing a theft of more than $4 million—unleashing a strange, explosive scandal that has since rocked the country. 

Ramaphosa has maintained that the thieves took $580,000 that he made from selling 20 buffalos. But the panel didn’t buy his account, instead questioning why the packs of cash were stashed in a sofa, why the crime went unreported, and why the already sold buffaloes are still on his property, among other tax and legal concerns. There existed a serious conflict of interest, it said.

“The information presented by the president on the storage of the money is vague and leaves unsettling gaps,” the report said, later adding: “There are weighty considerations which leave us in substantial doubt as to whether the stolen foreign currency is the proceeds of the sale.”

That panel’s findings, which effectively say there is enough for a full-fledged parliamentary investigation and hearing, have thrown Ramaphosa’s political future into jeopardy. “He has to decide whether or not he’s got sufficient support in the governing African National Congress to stay on as president of both the party and also the country,” Eusebius McKaiser, a political analyst and author based in Johannesburg, told Foreign Policy on Thursday. 

It’s a sharp turn for a leader who pledged to battle corruption after succeeding Jacob Zuma, whose presidency was marked by graft scandals. For Ramaphosa, the controversy also comes at a politically inopportune time, with the African National Congress’s leadership elections set to take place later in December.

Ramaphosa was seen as “the poster child for constitutionalism,” McKaiser said. But “this tells us that there are actually continuities between him and his predecessor, even though we were sold the idea that it was going to be a break from his predecessor.”

Ramaphosa was reportedly preparing to resign yesterday but was convinced by allies to reverse course, according to the Mail & Guardian.

South Africa’s Parliament is set to discuss the report on Tuesday.


What We’re Following Today

Spain’s mysterious letter bombs. Spanish authorities are on high alert after six cases of letter bombs have been reported across the country since Nov. 24, including one sent to Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez. Others have targeted the U.S. Embassy, the Ukrainian Embassy, the Spanish defense ministry, an air base, and an arms manufacturer that produces some weapons that have been shipped to Ukraine. 

Spanish defense minister Margarita Robles insisted that the government’s support for Ukraine would not be shaken. “What must be very clear is that none of these deliveries or any other violent action will change the clear and firm commitment of Spain, NATO countries, and the European Union to support Ukraine,” she said.

Africa’s mpox vaccines. South Korea has donated 50,000 vaccine doses for monkeypox (now known as mpox) to African countries, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Health workers and those residing in the most heavily impacted regions will receive the first doses. Across Africa, 202 people have died from mpox this year. 


Keep an Eye On 

Hospitalized U.S. hostage. Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine who has been detained in Russia since 2018, has reportedly been hospitalized, his family said. Whelan has not been in contact with his family for a week and has missed a planned phone call, which they said was unusual. Washington has previously suggested conducting a prisoner swap of Whelan and U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer. 

“We are deeply concerned about the lack of information and the lack of contact from Paul, and we’re working on this really as hard as we can through diplomatic channels,” U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said

Mexico’s minimum wage bump. Mexico plans to raise its minimum wage by 20 percent starting on Jan. 1, 2023, officials said on Thursday. The minimum wage, now 172 Mexican pesos (or $9) will increase to 207 Mexican pesos (or around $10.82). 


Thursday’s Most Read

The Perpetually Irrational Ukraine Debate by Stephen M. Walt

Turkey Is NATO’s Pivot Point Over Ukraine by Robbie Gramer and Anusha Rathi

Will Russia Kill the OSCE? by Stephanie Liechtenstein


Odds and Ends 

What do bats and death metal singers have in common? They turn to the same vocal tricks to produce certain sounds, according to a new study in the PLOS Biology journal.

“We identified for the first time what physical structures within the larynx oscillate to make their different vocalizations. For example, bats can make low frequency calls, using their so-called ‘false vocal folds’—like human death metal singers do,” said Coen Elemans, a professor at the University of Southern Denmark and the head of the research team. 

Christina Lu is a reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @christinafei

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