FIRST TAKE: Ramaphosa delivered body blow by Mkhwebane as political tectonic plates collide

President Cyril Ramaphosa
President Cyril Ramaphosa
Jaco Marais

Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane delivered a mortal blow to the reformist President Cyril Ramaphosa on Friday.

The findings against him are the very worst he could have expected. Not only did he "deliberately" mislead Parliament about the paltry R500 000 donation to his campaign by Bosasa's Gavin Watson, but in doing so he violated the Constitution, failed to declare donations and the National Prosecuting Authority must investigate allegations of money-laundering, she found.

The findings will have enormous consequences for a head of state that constructed his whole campaign on fighting graft, rolling back capture and restoring faith in the rule of law. He will now be attacked as someone who is corrupt and dishonest – enough grounds for a Constitutional process to have him removed.

And while Mkhwebane was in Hatfield, Pretoria, preparing the grounds for the constitutional review of his fitness for office, some 70 kilometres away in Parktown, Johannesburg, former president Jacob Zuma was attacking the integrity of the judicial commission of inquiry into state capture - a phenomenon he presided over.

Zuma's prickly and antagonistic legal team announced they would be withdrawing from the commission and that the process was "a joke". A court application was in the offing. He later changed his mind.

READ MORE: Public Protector finds Ramaphosa 'deliberately misled' Parliament over R500 000 Bosasa payment

In the space of a couple of hours on Friday, South Africa's whole political environment was upended.

A president with the stated ambition of cleaning up was smeared with the brush of corruption and lies, while a former president who appeared in front of a body to investigate the corruption and lies perpetrated under him was insulating himself from scrutiny.

Both dramatic events, while not overtly connected, will have the same effect: Ramaphosa will be weakened, the increasingly visible fightback against the reform drive will become emboldened, the EFF and elements in the ANC will push for the president's removal, the revision and sanitation of the Zuma years will gather pace and narrative will change from Zuma capture to Ramaphosa capture.

Mkhwebane, who has been under the cosh for months due to her obsessive pursuit of Minister of Public Enterprises Pravin Gordhan and her overturned findings into Absa, the SA Reserve Bank and the Guptas' Estina dairy project, has now made serious and consequential findings against Ramaphosa.

READ MORE | ANALYSIS: Gordhan girds for war as he links Mkhwebane and the EFF to capture

Ramaphosa will, without doubt, try to interdict the remedial actions and take the report under review. But he is going to have to consider his and his team's involvement in this avoidable debacle.

Her finding that he "deliberately misled" Parliament could be low-hanging fruit in a court of law and might well be set aside (his explanation about where the R500 000 donation came from was given in answer to a follow-up question and he moved quickly to correct it).

But the findings about the non-declaration of campaign donations and the charges of money laundering might be more difficult to defeat. Millions of rand flowed through accounts connected to Ramaphosa. And with the poorly advised acceptance of a donation by Watson but one revelation, who knows what else lurks in those accounts?

The single-largest donor deposited more than R120m into the trust account from which campaign funds were disbursed.

The investigation against Ramaphosa was done in terms of the Executive Members' Ethics Act and she found those donations represented a material benefit to Ramaphosa (he denied it). It should have been declared in the register of members' interests, a public document tabled annually in Parliament.

READ MORE: Constitutional Court to rule on Public Protector, SA Reserve Bank matter

If Mkhwebane's findings stand, the identities of these donors will soon be made public. And there's no doubt that those names will provide enough fodder for Ramaphosa's political opponents who claim that he is captured by the interests of so-called "white monopoly capital".

The allegations of money laundering against Ramaphosa's campaign will be seized on by his opponents. They will attack him for his violation of the Constitution and he will be weakened by his neglect to declare the donations in the members' register.

Ramaphosa, who should be engaged with repairing the state, fixing the economy and restoring the rule of law, is now officially and publicly involved a battle for survival.

And Zuma? He threatened his comrades and the commission this week. He made accusations against friends and he undermined the process of accountability.

Yesterday was literally another country.

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