What is South Africa’s Phala Phala farm robbery scandal about?

President Ramaphosa is at the centre of an international scandal involving the theft of $4m from his game farm.

South Africa's Cyril Ramaphosa
South Africa's Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa arrives to attend the Stud Game Breeders auction at Mbizi Lodge outside Bela-Bela on September 6, 2014 wearing a cap customised for his Phala Phala game farm [File: Stefan Heunis/AFP]

On June 1, 2022, Arthur Fraser, the former head of the South African State Security Agency, the country’s spy agency, walked into a police station in Johannesburg and filed a criminal complaint against President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Fraser accused Ramaphosa of kidnapping, bribery, money laundering, and “concealing a crime” in relation to the alleged theft of $4m from his Phala Phala Farm, in a 12-page sworn statement, accompanied by photographs, documents and closed-circuit television (CCTV) footage of the alleged theft taking place.

Shortly after the spymaster’s allegations surfaced, Ramaphosa issued a statement confirming a robbery on his farm on February 9, 2020, saying “proceeds from the sale of game were stolen,” but denying any wrongdoing or criminal conduct.

When he took office in 2018 after defeating Jacob Zuma-aligned former African Union Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in the African National Congress (ANC) general elections, Ramaphosa vowed to root out corruption in state institutions.

However Ramaphosa’s tenure has had its share of controversies, and Fraser’s allegations could impact the president’s career as the ruling ANC prepares to hold national elections in December.

What is the scandal?

  • According to Fraser, criminals broke into Ramaphosa’s Phala Phala wildlife farm in South Africa’s Limpopo province, on February 9, 2020 and discovered large sums of dollar bills hidden in various pieces of furniture.
  • Fraser alleged that Ramaphosa’s housekeeper, whose identity is being protected, discovered the stash and messaged her brother, who knew a gang that could carry out the robbery.
  • The gang allegedly included four Namibian citizens and two South Africans who gained entry into the premises by cutting the wire perimeter and entering through a window of the main farmhouse. The break-in was captured on CCTV footage, according to Fraser, who attached a video of what looks like two men crawling to a window on their knees, and two others waiting by a door.
  • The president, who said in a statement that he was abroad at the time, claims to have reported the incident to the presidential protection police unit. Upon return, he asked his head of security, Major General Wally Rhoode, to investigate the incident.
  • Rhoode allegedly assembled a team of retired police officers and serving members of the crime intelligence unit, who recovered some of the stolen loot from the housekeeper and some of her alleged co-conspirators after interrogation.
  • Fraser claims that the housekeeper and the alleged perpetrators were later paid nearly $10,000 for their silence. The housekeeper was allegedly later reinstated but assigned to a different job on the farm.

What happened afterwards?

  • Ramaphosa’s spokesperson, Vincent Magwenya, denied Fraser’s allegations in a statement and added: “President Cyril Ramaphosa acknowledges that while there is much public interest and concern about claims made in a criminal complaint against him, he remains firmly focused on the task of rebuilding the economy and the country.”
  • Some of the suspects are accused of changing the currency from United States dollars to South African rands and going on a spending spree – buying cars and houses in cash – in Cape Town shortly after the alleged heist. Fraser said this in his sworn statement and attached documents to support his claim.
  • According to Fraser, one of the suspects fled the country and returned to Namibia. Ramaphosa then enlisted the assistance of Namibian President Hage Geingob, who dispatched local law enforcement to apprehend the suspect and hand him over to Rhoode, who recovered some of the loot.
  • During a press conference on Tuesday, Geingob denied allegations that he was involved in anything unlawful, but confirmed that he had regular phone calls with his South African counterpart, The Namibian reported. “I’m in touch with about 14 presidents, we call each other [on the phone] … This thing happened in South Africa, there will be a court case, maybe. It is a criminal case,” said Geingob.
  • He continued, “‪People were here, somebody came here illegally. He was arrested, he was later charged, paid and went back to South Africa. So I don’t know what favour I would’ve done anybody.” ‬

What do we know about the Phala Phala farm?

  • It lies on the outskirts of a town called Bela-Bela in Limpopo, the northernmost province of South Africa. According to its website, it spans 4,500 hectares (11,120 acres).
  • It has been in operation since 2010.
  • Ramaphosa’s last declaration of business interests was in 2017 and Phala Phala was not mentioned specifically.
  • This is not Phala Phala’s first controversy. In November 2020, animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) accused Ramaphosa of having ties to South Africa’s trophy hunting industry
  • PETA claimed to have conducted an undercover investigation and obtained corroborating statements from farm workers. “Wild animals are bred specifically to be killed for trophies,” its statement read. “Footage reveals that Ramaphosa is quietly developing and expanding a trophy hunting property called Diepdrift—stocking it with animals from his own wildlife breeding operation, Phala Phala—and that he owns a 50% stake in Tsala Hunting Safaris.”
  • Ramaphosa swiftly denied having a stake in the trophy hunting industry or in Tsala Hunting Safaris.“Phala Phala’s wildlife breeding and management activities comply with best ethical and lawful practice in the sector,” he said in a statement.

What have the reactions been so far?

Opposition parties in South Africa have called for Ramaphosa’s resignation in response to the public outcry.

Former president Zuma was ousted from office through a “vote of no confidence” motion tabled in parliament after a scandal in which $16m of taxpayer money was used for security enhancements in his private compound in Nkandla in the KwaZulu-Natal province.

Earlier this week, the controversial brothers Rajesh and Atul Gupta, alleged to have used their affiliation with Zuma to influence contracts and appointments for years, were arrested by Dubai police. They are reportedly awaiting extradition.

  • According to Ramaphosa‘s critics and opponents, the allegations against him seem on par with that of his predecessor.
  • In a press conference on Tuesday, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) Julius Malema said, “We will treat him the same way we treated Zuma. He has not respected his oath of office … these are very serious allegations. Let them continue to push Fraser, there is more. Ramaphosa is engaged in money laundering and illicit financial flows without being held accountable.”
  • Ramaphosa has so far declined to say why he stored a substantial sum of money in foreign currency on his property, or whether the money was declared to the South African Revenue Service for tax purposes or customs upon entry into the country.
  • Meanwhile, other opposition parties like the African Transformation Movement (ATM)  and United Democratic Movement (UDM) have written to parliament, asking for an inquiry into the allegations and demanding that Ramaphosa take “sabbatical leave” until law enforcement concludes its investigation.
  • Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, speaker of parliament, confirmed receipt of the letters to local news channel eNCA on Wednesday, saying “With correspondence of this nature, we have to consult with the legal team of parliament and my own legal team to ascertain what is within my rights as the speaker in relation to the court’s process.”
  • Mapisa-Nqakula also reaffirmed that Ramaphosa has denied the allegations and “made himself available to law enforcement in relation to the investigation.”
  • The Public Protector, Advocate Busisiwe Mkhwebane, confirmed on Thursday that her office, an independent government watchdog, has also launched an investigation into the matter after receiving a complaint from a member of parliament. “The complaint relates to President Ramaphosa’s alleged conduct in respect of allegations of criminal activities at one of his properties,” the statement read.

What next?

  • Ramaphosa is preparing to host the Ankole Society of South Africa’s national cattle auction next week at the same Phala Phala farm.
  • As a number of government institutions begin probing the allegations by Fraser, it is only a matter of time before more details are revealed.
Source: Al Jazeera