Cyril Ramaphosa, the embattled president of South Africa, has rejected calls to step down and said he will seek a judicial review of a report handed over last week by an independent panel appointed by parliament that accused him of “serious misconduct”, aides said.
The move may forestall looming impeachment but could plunge South Africa into a prolonged bout of political instability.
“President Ramaphosa is not resigning based on a flawed report, neither is he stepping aside,” the president’s spokesperson Vincent Magwenya told the Guardian on Saturday.
“It is in the long-term interest and sustainability of our constitutional democracy, well beyond the Ramaphosa presidency, that such a clearly flawed report is challenged, especially when it’s being used as a point of reference to remove a sitting head of state.”
The report described potential “gross misconduct” by Ramaphosa following the theft from his private game ranch of somewhere between $500,000 and $5m in cash almost three years ago. The funds, reportedly the proceeds of the sale of cattle, were reportedly hidden in a sofa when they were taken.
Ramaphosa has been accused of holding undeclared foreign currency, tax evasion, failing to inform the police about the robbery and misusing state resources by ordering a senior presidential bodyguard to track down the thieves, who then appear to have been paid off. He has denied all wrongdoing.
The “Farmgate” scandal has reopened deep divisions between factions within the ruling African National Congress party, encouraging the president’s opponents.
The prospect of weeks of infighting – at least until the ANC holds a major conference to appoint a leader for another five years scheduled for later this month – will inflict further damage on South Africa’s flagging economy.
“The sharks are circling [around Ramaphosa] and there is blood in the water already. So this is going to be ugly and difficult and will distract us yet again from the many crises we have to deal with,” said Judith February, a political analyst.
The ANC’s historic popularity has been battered by soaring unemployment, continuing violent crime, rolling nationwide power outages and allegations of endemic corruption.
Opposition parties sought on Saturday to stiffen support for an impeachment, an unprecedented move under South Africa’s constitution.
“We call on all the people of South Africa to unite in defense of our constitution and the rule of law,” a statement issued by a coalition including the Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters said.
Many of the most vocal ANC politicians and activists calling for Ramaphosa to resign are aligned with the so-called Radical Economic Transformation faction, which includes supporters of the former president Jacob Zuma.
Zuma was forced out of power in 2018 amid widespread accusations of corruption and mismanagement, many later substantiated by a judicial inquiry. Officials have blamed his followers for instigating violent protests and looting last year, which was some of the worst violence for decades in South Africa.
Allies of the former president have mounted fierce resistance to Ramaphosa’s premiership, accusing the former businessman of pandering to international capitalism and South Africa’s disproportionately wealthy white minority.
The president’s insistence that any party official facing criminal charges of corruption leave office pending investigations leaves him vulnerable to those who say he should do the same.
Ramaphosa denies any wrongdoing and has welcomed a separate police inquiry into the allegations. He has not been charged with any crimes.
The 70-year-old former labor activist has been helped by polls showing that support for the ANC, which has been in power since the fall of the racist, repressive apartheid regime 28 years ago, may collapse without Ramaphosa.
Most ANC politicians recognize that Ramaphosa remains the only party leader with broad appeal, which may mean parliamentarians will hesitate before initiating a process that could remove him from office, with general elections due in 2024, observers said.
Some have doubted that the president, whose business career made him one of South Africa’s wealthiest individuals, has the stomach for a lengthy battle. Others say he can be ruthless when he is “pushed to the edge”.
“As president, he has shown himself to be someone who wants unity above all else – to the detriment of the country but he had to engage in some pretty bare-knuckle politics to get into power so you can’t say he doesn’t have it in him,” said February.