With a showdown on corruption looming in the ANC, opposition MPs forced President Cyril Ramaphosa to walk a political tightrope.
Corruption, particularly regarding Covid-19 procurement, was the overarching theme of Thursday’s question session in the National Assembly, with three of the six principal questions on this topic.
The supplementary question, an enquiry about government debt, also mostly dealt with corruption.
This comes as the ANC national executive committee (NEC) meeting, which is scheduled for this weekend, is due to grapple with the question of how to deal with the looters in its ranks.
Ramaphosa, in a letter to his comrades, said the ANC is corruption-accused number one.
His loyalists want to clean up the party, but pushback is also expected from another grouping, who will demand that Ramaphosa release the list of funders for his campaign to become the party’s president in 2017.
This was the political minefield Ramaphosa had to traverse, while opposition MPs on several occasions gave him a choice: The ANC or South Africa?
The public outrage at recently revealed widespread Covid-corruption didn’t go unnoticed at the Union Buildings.
“The allegations of corruption in the procurement of goods and services for our country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has caused outrage among South Africans and among us in the executive,” Ramaphosa said in response to the first question on the topic, posed by leader of the opposition John Steenhuisen.
“It is disgraceful that, at this time of national crisis, there are companies and individuals who seek to criminally benefit from our efforts to protect people’s health and save lives,” Ramaphosa continued.
He also outlined measures implemented to curb the scourge, like the proclamation for the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) to investigate all Covid-19 procurement, the establishment of a “fusion centre” and an interministerial committee to review all government contracts.
In his follow-up question, Steenhuisen referred to a quote from Ramaphosa from 2018, which reads: “I said I would rather be a weak president than split the ANC because that is not my mission.”
Steenhuisen said Ramaphosa has always put the ANC first, including supporting corruption-accused former president Jacob Zuma, going as far as publicly saying there was no corruption with regards to Nkandla.
Steenhuisen asked whether he supports corruption-accused Zandile Gumede’s appointment to the KwaZulu-Natal legislature as an ANC MPL.
After almost calling Steenhuisen “minister”, Ramaphosa referred to a recent column by JP Landman, which appeared on News24’s opinion page, in which he outlined the structural measures the Ramaphosa-administration has taken to combat corruption.
Ramaphosa said it is not the president’s duty to arrest people.
“If that happens, you must run for the hills!” he said to applause from the sparsely populated ANC benches in the hybrid sitting.
He didn’t initially respond to Steenhuisen’s pointed question about Gumede, but Steenhuisen repeated it on a point of order. Ramaphosa then said it is being discussed within the structures of the ANC.
“Aaah!” groaned the DA MPs in attendance.
EFF leader Julius Malema said corruption is so deep-rooted in the ANC that the husband of Ramaphosa’s own spokesperson, Khusela Diko, is implicated.
Then, taking a leaf from Ramaphosa’s critics in the ANC, he brought up the funders of Ramaphosa’s presidential campaign.
“If you unseal the CR17 documents, you can make it easy to see no CR17 donors benefitted from PPEs,” Malema said.
Ramaphosa said Diko stepped aside and they are looking into the matter.
He also said the CR17 matter is before the courts and they must allow that to proceed.
FF Plus leader Pieter Groenewald said the Covid-19 corruption is proof that the new dawn Ramaphosa promised is just a mirage, saying Ramaphosa said the interests of the ANC are above the interests of South Africa.
Ramaphosa said he does not remember saying that, and that it is certainly not the case.
“South Africa comes first,” he said. “I was not sworn in to advance the interests of a party, I was sworn in to advance the interests of the people of South Africa.”
IFP MP Mfakazeleni Buthelezi asked about “sabotage” in cleaning up corruption in the government and the ANC.
Again, Ramaphosa referred to the Landman column. He said he wouldn’t say there is sabotage, but it is possible that there are people in institutions who “want to put the brakes” on cleaning up and that those who have benefitted from state capture will fight back.
Steenhuisen and FF Plus MP Heloïse Denner referred to a comment by ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule in an interview with News24, where he said: “Tell me of one ANC leader who has not done business with government.”
Ramaphosa referred to the letter he penned recently about corruption in the party. He said South Africans are incensed about ANC officials doing business with the state, and the party will discuss it.
“The ANC will discuss it and come to a conclusion,” he said. “We’re going to have a fairly robust discussion.”
Apart from corruption, another matter under discussion was gender-based violence.
“The struggle to end gender-based violence and femicide will succeed only if society as a whole is mobilised and organised behind a common programme of action,” Ramaphosa said.
He announced that the Gender-Based Violence and Femicide National Council will lead the response and it will consist of a maximum of 13 members, 51% of which will be civil society representatives and 49% government representatives.
Of late, the ATM has campaigned on social media about restricting foreign nationals’ employment.
This manifested itself in a question to Ramaphosa, who warned against the “populist temptation to blame unemployment on foreign nationals”.