Mpumelelo Mkhabela: CR17 donors can help Ramaphosa out of the political quagmire

President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: Elmond Jiyane/GCIS
President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: Elmond Jiyane/GCIS

The CR17 donors must understand that in the morality index those who rise to power on a clean ticket are judged harsher than those for whom corruption is the norm, writes Mpumelelo Mkhabela.

The decision by backers of Cyril Ramaphosa's presidential bid to establish a formal fundraising platform with his approval was a phenomenal success. Not only did the campaign raise hundreds of millions of rands, it also achieved its goal. Needless to say, Ramaphosa became president of the ANC in 2017.

In early 2018, Ramaphosa, then deputy president of the country and member of Parliament, was elected by the National Assembly as president of the republic after Jacob Zuma was forced to resign from the position.

Ramaphosa led the ANC to the fiercely contested national elections. There is reasonable consensus that had Zuma remained in power and had Ramaphosa lost to Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma at Nasrec, the ANC would have either lost or had its majority more drastically reduced than was eventually the case in the 2019 elections.

The ANC triumphed precisely because Ramaphosa was perceived as representing the antithesis of the ruinous state capture networks of the Guptas. In his campaign, Ramaphosa projected the ANC as a party that was prepared to undo the wrongs that happened under Zuma.

It is debatable whether Dlamini-Zuma would have been able to run a campaign of that nature had she won the ANC presidential succession race. No doubt a leader in her own right and known for her dislike of corruption, her biggest handicap would have been the people who had campaigned on her behalf or for themselves: Zuma and his supporters. Their victory would have made the economic consequences of Nhlanhla Nene's dismissal as finance minister look like a kindergarten party.

Had Ramaphosa not obtained the huge financial backing from prominent individuals with deep pockets to propel him to power, South Africa would either be a basket case under the ANC or governed by a ramshackle coalition government. He had no chance in hell to defeat the Zuma coalition which relied on access to state resources, a network of controversial business people including former convicts and, of course, the Guptas.

Yet, it is the financial backing that Ramaphosa received that has controversialised his ascendance to power. The Public Protector, armed with a complaint by the leader of the official opposition, Mmusi Maimane, to investigate whether the president lied to Parliament and whether there was money laundering, decided to probe all the CR17 funds beyond the subject of the complaint about a parliamentary question.

That the CR17 funds were not public funds did not matter to Busisiwe Mkhwebane. She seized on Ramaphosa's moment of political lapse when he attempted to answer a substantive question without notice. He voluntarily corrected himself in a subsequent letter to Parliament.

For reasons that are going to dominate court proceedings, Mkhwebane expanded her gaze beyond the specific parliamentary question about a Gavin Watson donation. The court will soon hear Ramaphosa's review application where he argues that Mkhwebane had no jurisdiction over private donations for intra-party-political contests. She is defending her remedial actions including the directive that Ramaphosa must disclose this funding because he personally benefitted from it.

Ramaphosa has assured South Africans that donations made to his campaign had no strings attached. He had no obligation to return any favours to the people who donated. This, he claims, was a key consideration in the way CR17 donations were structured.

He will most likely win the legal case against Mkhwebane. But he still has to fight to win the political case in the court of public opinion and the court of his opponents in the ANC.

The CR17 donors can assist Ramaphosa. The donors he appointed to boards of state-owned companies should voluntarily consider their positions. Although they are people of high caliber who qualify for such appointments, they should help Ramaphosa get out of the political quagmire.

They must understand that in the morality index those who rise to power on a clean ticket are judged harsher than those for whom corruption is the norm. Even the corrupt and their supporters tend to pass judgement on their supposedly clean nemesis.

Those Ramaphosa appointed to some board positions are wealthy and do not need to make a living from the appointments. They probably agreed to serve in the spirit of Thuma Mina to strengthen Ramaphosa's hand in instilling good governance. But it is time they also consider the negative political impact of their generosity.

Similarly, there will be intense public scrutiny on big commercial deals or tenders that are awarded by government or state-owned enterprises. If any of the business people who donated to Ramaphosa are seen to be clinching deals, the CR17 donations saga will continue to haunt the president.

If it was an act of good citizenship to sponsor a campaign to defeat state capture, the donors should act like good Samaritans: expect and accept nothing in return. They should not be part of new business deals or appointments that may undermine their supposed act of good citizenship.

- Mkhabela is a regular columnist for News24.

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