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South Africa’s President, Cyril Ramaphosa, Faces Impeachment

JOHANNESBURG — Cyril Ramaphosa is on the brink of becoming the first South African president to face impeachment after a report released Wednesday found evidence that he may have committed serious misconduct and violations of the law in relation to a theft at one of his properties.

Although the unprecedented finding is just an early step in any path to impeachment, it throws Mr. Ramaphosa’s presidency into crisis and casts doubt on his future as South Africa’s leader.

The National Assembly is scheduled to meet next week to debate the report and decide whether the president should face a hearing on whether he should be removed from office. Analysts say it seems likely that the Assembly will choose to proceed.

Mr. Ramaphosa would be removed from office if two-thirds of Parliament members vote to do so after a hearing.

Mr. Ramaphosa faces other challenges as well.

In about two weeks, his party, the African National Congress, will convene its national conference, and he is expected to face a fierce battle for a second term as its leader.

His detractors within the deeply divided party have been pushing for his removal since allegations surfaced in June that he had millions of dollars in U.S. currency stashed at his game farm, and that he had started an off-the-books investigation after the money was stolen.

With an impeachment hearing perhaps imminent, those foes are likely to smell blood in the water.

“His opponents inside the A.N.C. will be going for his head,” said Bongani Ngqulunga, who teaches politics at the University of Johannesburg.

South Africa’s former Chief justice, Sandile Ngcobo, handing over the impeachment report to the speaker of Parliament, Nosiviwe Noluthando Mapisa-Nqakula, on Wednesday.Credit…Esa Alexander/Reuters

In a statement released late Wednesday by his office, Mr. Ramaphosa reiterated his stance that had done nothing to violate his constitutional oath, and spoke of “an unprecedented and extraordinary moment for South Africa’s constitutional democracy.”

“The conclusions of the panel require careful reading and appropriate consideration in the interest of the stability of government and that of the country,” he said.

Mr. Ramaphosa rose to power in 2017 after campaigning as an anti-corruption crusader. His campaign for re-election as leader — and as president of South Africa — got a lift last week, when nominations released from his party’s rank and file showed him ahead by a wide margin.

Now that advantage could be in doubt.

Questions are sure to arise about whether the president needs to step aside from his role as the party leader to comply with party guidelines. Under A.N.C. rules, officials facing criminal charges are suspended from their roles. Although the impeachment panel’s finding does not amount to criminal charges, Mr. Ramaphosa’s detractors are likely to argue that he has been morally compromised.

Mr. Ramaphosa also faces two other investigations — one by the national prosecutor’s office and the other by the public protector, a corruption watchdog — that could jeopardize his future as South Africa’s leader.

Under South African law, presidents can be removed from office if they violate the Constitution, commit gross misconduct, or are physically or mentally unable to serve. In June, a political rival accused Mr. Ramaphosa of a cover-up.

The president had between $4 million and $8 million in cash stolen from his Phala Phala game farm in February 2020 but never reported the theft to avoid scrutiny, according to a criminal complaint filed by Arthur Fraser, the former head of state security in South Africa.

Instead, Mr. Fraser found, Mr. Ramaphosa used his personal protection unit to investigate the theft. Mr. Fraser also claimed that suspects in the theft had been detained by the president’s investigators and been paid off to keep quiet.

Mr. Ramaphosa’s Phala Phala game farm in Limpopo province, South Africa.Credit…Joao Silva/The New York Times

Mr. Ramaphosa has denied any wrongdoing. While he has acknowledged that money was stolen from his game farm, saying it was the proceeds from the sale of animals, he has declined to provide any specifics, arguing that the investigative process must play out.

After an opposition party filed a motion to impeach Mr. Ramaphosa, the speaker of the National Assembly, herself an A.N.C. member, in August initiated the procedure set out in parliamentary rules. The speaker, Nosiviwe Noluthando Mapisa-Nqakula, appointed a panel of two retired judges and a lawyer to determine whether there was evidence to support a case for impeachment.

The panel’s findings essentially amount to a conclusion that based on the evidence it reviewed, Mr. Ramaphosa needs to account for his conduct and establish that he did not violate the law, said Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, a South African lawyer specializing in constitutional matters.

But, he stressed, the findings do not mean the president has broken the law.

“You cannot make any deductions about the validity of the charge against him,” Mr. Ngcukaitobi said.

Mr. Ramaphosa would be the first president to face an impeachment hearing since the process for the removal of a president was set out in the Constitution that South Africa adopted in 1996, after the end of apartheid.

The process for impeachment was changed to include the independent panel after South Africa’s top court ruled in 2017 that Parliament had failed to hold Mr. Ramaphosa’s predecessor, Jacob Zuma, to account for the web of corruption allegations he faced. Mr. Zuma resigned without ever having faced an impeachment hearing.

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