South Africa’s Leader Wins a Crucial A.N.C. Political Battle

JOHANNESBURG — President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, whose presidency has been upended by claims that he tried to cover up the theft of a huge sum of cash at his farm, emerged well placed to win a second term as leader of the governing African National Congress, and president of the country, after nominations by his party’s rank and file were released on Tuesday.

The A.N.C. revealed that 3,543 branches across the country had submitted nominations for leadership positions that will be contested during a national party conference that begins on Dec. 16 in Johannesburg.

At the gathering, held every five years, members choose the A.N.C.’s top officials, including their president, and the party’s president typically serves as the country’s president. National elections are set for 2024, and the A.N.C. has won an outright majority of votes in every national election since South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994.

Mr. Ramaphosa won nominations from 2,037 branches, more than double that of his closest challenger, Zweli Mkhize. But analysts cautioned not to make too much of the results because the contest could change drastically by the time the conference begins.

Delegates, who vote by secret ballot, are under no obligation to stick with the nominations of their branches. A lot of horse-trading and haggling over votes occur between the time that nominations are released and when delegates step to the ballot box, analysts said.

Still, the nominations are an early positive sign for Mr. Ramaphosa, who has been under intense scrutiny since a former intelligence chief and political rival filed a police complaint claiming that in February 2020, $4 million to $8 million in U.S. currency stashed in furniture had been stolen from Mr. Ramaphosa’s game farm, Phala Phala Wildlife.

The former spy chief, Arthur Fraser, laid out scandalous accusations, including that Mr. Ramaphosa had never reported the theft to the police, instead relying on an off-the-books investigation by the head of the presidential protection unit to look into the theft.

The president’s opponents within his own party have called on him to step down, accusing him of trying to cover up the theft to shield himself from accusations of money laundering and tax fraud associated with having that much foreign currency hidden at his farm.

A panel appointed by Parliament is scheduled to reach a decision by the end of this month on whether Mr. Ramaphosa should face an impeachment inquiry. Since transitioning to a democracy, South Africa has never had a president face impeachment. The national prosecutor’s office and the public protector, an anticorruption watchdog, have also begun their own investigations.

Mr. Ramaphosa, who has denied any wrongdoing, has argued that the investigative process must play out.

During a recent meeting of A.N.C. executives, he offered a few more details about the theft, saying that the amount stolen from the sale of the game was actually about $500,000. He named the businessman who he said had purchased the game, according to South African news articles.

The president’s statement did little to quell the venom he faced, local news outlets reported, saying that a leaked draft of a report by the A.N.C.’s integrity commission suggested that the scandal had brought disrepute to the party.

The tense leadership battle within the A.N.C., Africa’s oldest liberation movement — and the scrutiny Mr. Ramaphosa faces over the theft — comes as the party faces a crossroads. Much of the country has become fed up with the constant drumbeat of corruption accusations against party officials. Entrenched poverty and poor delivery of services like electricity and water have caused daily hardships for many. This has all led the party’s electoral support to plummet.

During last year’s local government elections, the A.N.C. failed to garner at least 50 percent of the national vote for the first time since the country’s transition from apartheid to democratic rule. Many analysts predict that the party will fall short of 50 percent during the next national elections, meaning that it will have to form a coalition with other parties to remain in power.

The leadership that emerges out of next month’s A.N.C. conference “will be quite critical as a turning point of the demise of the A.N.C.,” said Mmamoloko Kubayi, a member of the party’s executive committee and a supporter of Mr. Ramaphosa. “Society will see whether the A.N.C. is serious about turning around, whether the A.N.C. is serious about showing that it has listened.”

For much of his four years in power Mr. Ramaphosa had appeared to be coasting toward winning a second term. But the scandal, called Farmgate by news outlets, may threaten that.

He came to power as A.N.C. leader in 2017 as an anticorruption crusader, later replacing Jacob Zuma, whose nine years in office were marred by numerous accusations that he had allowed people close to him to enrich themselves by robbing state coffers.

In the wake of Mr. Zuma’s tenure, Mr. Ramaphosa championed a contentious A.N.C. rule that required party officials to be suspended from their positions if they were criminally charged in a court of law.

Now, Mr. Ramaphosa could find himself facing that same rule.

Lynsey Chutel contributed reporting.

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