The race to lead South Africa’s ruling party is turning increasingly nasty.
The sordid allegations that Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, a front-runner for the post, had extra-marital affairs with at least eight women and paid expenses for some of them were splashed across the front page of the Sunday Independent, which cited Ramaphosa’s private emails to back up the story. It didn’t say how it obtained them. Ramaphosa called the report part of a covert operation to halt his drive to root out corruption in the ruling African National Congress.
“We already had a somewhat toxic political environment in South Africa and it’s just got a bit more ugly,” Daniel Silke, director of Political Futures Consultancy in Cape Town, said by phone.
“Extra-marital affairs have not had any dramatic effect on leaders’ political fortunes. For those who wish to damage the Ramaphosa campaign, I would say they would need to try a little bit harder.”
Ramaphosa’s admission that he had an affair eights years ago will probably help deflect further personal attacks, which are likely to be forthcoming, said Theo Venter, a political analyst at North-West University’s business school in Potchefstroom, west of Johannesburg.
“The intensity of political noise will increase now that we are closing in on the final lap of the ANC leadership race,” Venter said. “The allegation with regards to Cyril Ramaphosa’s extra-marital affairs will not have a lasting effect.”
The controversy comes less than four months before the ANC is due to elect a new leader, who’ll also be its presidential candidate in 2019 elections. Ramaphosa’s main rival is Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, 68, the former chairperson of the African Union Commission and President Jacob Zuma’s ex-wife. The contest, which analysts say is too close to call, has exposed deep divisions within the 105-year-old ANC, which has dominated South African politics since white-minority rule ended in 1994.
Ramaphosa filed an unsuccessful lawsuit Saturday to stop the newspaper from publishing the revelations. While he admitted to an affair eight years ago, he denied having other extra-marital relations in an interview with the Sunday Times newspaper and said his emails had been hacked and altered, possibly by members of the intelligence services.
“This latest episode extends far beyond an attempt at political smear,” Ramaphosa said in a statement on Saturday. “It represents an escalation of a dirty war against those who are working to restore the values, principles and integrity of the ANC and society. It is evident that there is a well-resourced, coordinated covert operation underway to prevent those responsible for wrongdoing from being held to account.”
A lawyer who co-founded the National Union of Mineworkers, Ramaphosa, 64, helped negotiate a peaceful end to apartheid and draft South Africa’s first democratic constitution. He lost out to Thabo Mbeki in the contest to succeed Nelson Mandela as president in 1999 and went into business, amassing a fortune before returning to full-time politics in 2012 as the ANC’s deputy leader.
Zuma, 75, who’s been implicated in several graft scandals since he took office in 2009, has indicated that he wants his ex-wife to succeed him. Ramaphosa criticised his boss’s March 31 decision to fire the respected Pravin Gordhan as his finance minister – a move that prompted two ratings companies to downgrade the nation’s debt to junk – saying he and other ANC leaders weren’t consulted.
On the campaign trail, Ramaphosa has spoken out against graft and called for a prompt investigation into allegations that members of the wealthy Gupta family, who are in business with Zuma’s son, looted billions of rands from the state. Zuma and the Guptas deny wrongdoing.
Zuma is attending a summit in China and his spokesperson Bongani Ngqulunga didn’t answer a call to his mobile phone. The president, a Zulu traditionalist who has four wives and at least 20 children, has publicly admitted to having two extra-marital affairs.