Ramaphosa farm robbery: could ex-spymaster Fraser bring the South African president down?
President Cyril Ramaphosa is facing what may be the most personally damaging moment of his presidency. A seemingly unreported 2020 theft of cash from Ramaphosa’s Limpopo game farm is coming back to haunt him in a way that is clearly orchestrated to endanger his political future — but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some serious issues at stake. We unpack the bizarre saga so far.
Before we get started: is this story completely ludicrous or deadly serious?
In the best South African tradition: both.
How did this all begin?
As Ferial Haffajee laid out brilliantly here, a week ago the former South African spy boss Arthur Fraser walked into a Johannesburg police station and laid a criminal complaint against President Cyril Ramaphosa.
But the real story starts “on or about” 9 February 2020, which is when Fraser claims a very large sum of money — more about the amount in a minute — was stolen from Ramaphosa’s game farm, Phala Phala, in Limpopo.
Fraser alleged that Ramaphosa did not report the theft to the police, and instead instructed the head of his Presidential Protection Unit, Major-General Wally Rhoode, to essentially go rogue: find the criminals, get the money back, and keep it all quiet. (Coincidentally, this is also the plot of almost every movie starring The Rock.)
In Fraser’s version, Rhoode and his team did just that, via an entirely unlawful caper that involved kidnapping and interrogating suspects, tracking some of them to Namibia, and ultimately paying off six suspects to the tune of R150,000 per person to not breathe a word of what had happened.
The mastermind behind the theft, Fraser alleges, was Ramaphosa’s domestic worker at the farm. He further claims that the employee not only received one of the R150,000 pay-offs but also was ultimately reinstated in her job after some patriarchal man-talk between Ramaphosa and her father.
So the alleged criminals…
Never saw the inside of a jail cell; were never charged; in the case of the domestic worker, never even lost their job; and ended up with a R150,000 present — by way of punishment for having stolen millions from a sitting president?
Correct, according to Fraser. Which would seemingly make this the textbook example of “crime does, in fact, pay”.
How reliable is Fraser as a whistle-blower?
Fraser claimed in his affidavit that he was coming forward at this point “guided by the dictates of the interests of justice and our Constitution”, which is a lovely idea, but completely implausible.
Fraser has a clear axe to grind against Ramaphosa, who removed him from the State Security Agency (SSA) after evidence emerged that the country’s intelligence apparatus under Fraser had become a deeply politicised force working to entrench the power of former president Jacob Zuma.
As Makhudu Sefara pointed out in an incisive Sunday Times op-ed, “Presidents around the world are seized with the mammoth headache of getting rid of spy chiefs they don’t trust but who know enough to plunge governments into crises.”
That Ramaphosa bungled the handling of Fraser is clear. The President awarded Fraser the consolation appointment of Commissioner of Correctional Services after his removal as spy boss — in which post Fraser was able to do another solid for his former master by unlawfully authorising the early release of Zuma from jail in September 2021 on medical parole.
It would be tragically naïve to view Fraser’s criminal complaint against Ramaphosa as unrelated to the factionalism that continues to divide the ANC. RET forces have made no secret of their unhappiness at the party’s “step-aside” rule, which currently prohibits leaders facing criminal charges from seeking election at the crucial December ANC electoral congress.
There has been open gloating from RET supporters on social media in response to Fraser’s affidavit. If the police do decide to charge Ramaphosa with criminal wrongdoing over the theft’s handling, the President would be ineligible to seek re-election from the ANC in December, denying him a second term that he is considered most likely to win, as things stand.
The only other option to maintain his political career, if he is formally criminally charged, would be for Ramaphosa to suddenly contest the same step-aside rule that he pushed for. This would not only constitute an act of egregious political hypocrisy, but would certainly open the door for figures like suspended ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule to claim the right to seek re-election in December too.
Fraser’s actions are probably also motivated by more direct self-interest. The final report of the Zondo Commission, due in mid-June, will include damning findings against the SSA under Fraser’s leadership, and could well recommend the criminal prosecution of Fraser. In addition, there are reports that the Investigating Directorate is circling around the SSA over the theft of hundreds of millions of rands from the agency.
From this perspective, Fraser’s decision to come forward now might be seen as a warning shot. There is speculation that Fraser could be sitting on further, yet more damaging, information about Ramaphosa that he could still release — which is why, as Sefara wrote, disgruntled former spooks make the most dangerous enemies.
The crucial “BUT” accompanying this all is a reminder that two things can be true at the same time. Fraser clearly has his own agenda, but that does not render the allegations against Ramaphosa automatically baseless. Regardless of Fraser’s motives in releasing the information, there are strong indications that Ramaphosa does, nevertheless, have a case to answer.
How much of Fraser’s story can we believe at this point?
Ramaphosa and his spokesman have confirmed that a theft of money from the Phala Phala farm did take place around the date of 9 February 2020, so we know that much is true. Ramaphosa was away at the time attending an African Union summit in Ethiopia.
It also appears certain that the theft was not officially reported to the SAPS, though the Presidency’s statement on the matter initially tried to fudge the issue a bit. It said: “President Ramaphosa reported the incident to the head of the Presidential Protection Unit of the South African Police Service [Rhoode] for investigation”.
The Presidency has since conceded that Rhoode did not register a theft case with the police.
It seems self-evidently true that the Presidency deliberately kept the crime quiet at the time, since Fraser’s affidavit was the first public mention of these events and there was no reporting on it at the time in South African media.
There has been no comment forthcoming from Ramaphosa and his team on the allegations of kidnapping, unlawful investigations, illegal pay-offs, and so forth. But the man claimed to be responsible for orchestrating the vigilante justice, Wally Rhoode, has a distinctly chequered past, having been suspected of involvement in tender corruption on at least two occasions.
Rhoode’s dodgy reputation is no secret, which raises further questions as to Ramaphosa’s judgment in appointing him as his chief bodyguard. As News24 editor Adriaan Basson wrote this week: “How did Ramaphosa allow this man to be his closest protector and oversee his entire security establishment?”
The most significant corroboration given to Fraser’s claims at this stage has come from an amaBhungane investigation that supported a number of key aspects. A source with knowledge of the events told amaB that the claims of kidnapping and interrogation carried out by Rhoode’s team were “credible”. There is also evidence to confirm that the suspects were indeed tracked to Namibia, while claims from Namibian authorities that they were given little assistance by South African law enforcement bolsters the sense of a high-level cover-up.
The Presidency’s refusal to supply any substantive information on the matter at this time is certainly fuelling the fire.
The Presidency has defended this stance by saying: “Due to the possible investigation, the Presidency will not be in a position to engage further on the detail of the matters, and urges that due process be allowed to take its course.”
This old chestnut, which is reliably trotted out by South African politicians seeking to avoid answering difficult questions, is nonsense. As local legal experts have wearily pointed out on countless occasions, there is nothing in current South African law that prevents the discussion of any ongoing court case — let alone a hypothetical investigation.
How much money was actually stolen from Ramaphosa?
Fraser wrote in his affidavit: “The quantum was speculated to be in the region of approximately 4 million to 8 million USD”.
In February 2020, when the theft occurred, 4 million USD was the equivalent of 60.2 million ZAR and 8 million USD was the equivalent of 120.5 million ZAR.
Ramaphosa and his team have been adamant that this estimate of the theft’s value is highly exaggerated, but have not provided an alternative figure.
“The amount involved is far less than the amount which has been reported in the press. Some said it’s R1-billion, some say it’s four million dollars. I want to say it is far less,” Ramaphosa told the ANC Limpopo conference on Sunday night.
amaBhungane’s report stated that the Namibian media were made aware by police in 2020 of a theft from Ramaphosa’s farm amounting to around R50-million.
IOL has, for reasons known only to its quirky journalists, reported that the amount of money stolen was $80-million, or R1.24-billion. Nobody else, including Fraser, has made this claim — which means it’s probably safe to file alongside “decuplets” in the big book of Shit that Independent Media Made Up.
Ramaphosa’s farm manager has questioned whether amateur criminals operating without so much as a getaway vehicle would be able to carry off as much cash as Fraser alleges.
But it would indeed be possible — $4-million in cash would weigh around 40kg and be made up of 40,000 $100 bills. The internet estimates that an average-sized briefcase could carry around $2.4-million in $100 bills.
Why did Ramaphosa have so much money lying around in the first place?
The Presidency says that the stolen millions were the proceeds of a private game sale.
Presidential spokesman Vincent Magwenya told News24: “In the normal course of some [Phala Phala] operations, clients will come in and out, look at game, and buy game, that’s just a normal thing”.
If anyone in this strange saga deserves your thoughts and prayers, it is Magwenya, who has been in his job for less than a week and has apparently had to become an expert on big-game farming virtually overnight.
Back to what Magwenya told News24: “During this particular time, the transactions were not necessarily from an auction, it was just a transaction that took place at the farm. And there were some cash payments made — some clients would use the normal banking platforms, others would pay cash.”
Is this normal? The consensus seems to be that it does happen sometimes, but it’s unusual and — for obvious reasons — not considered a very wise idea.
“In our experience, it is not common for buyers to want to pay cash in a private sale,” Wildlife Ranching SA’s Miquette Caalsen told Daily Maverick on Monday.
It is also unclear why the buyers wanted to pay in US dollars. Were they American?
“There is not a lot of interest from American buyers in South African game, unless they are owners or investors in private game ranches,” Caalsen said.
While there are many questionable aspects of this story, one thing that is well established is Ramaphosa’s involvement in the wildlife trade. It is probably not an exaggeration to suggest that the President’s greatest personal passion is the breeding and sale of animals.
This hobby seems to have started when he was young. In November 2020, presidential social media manager Athi Geleba tweeted that Ramaphosa “has been a pigeon breeder since the age of 16 & owned a flock of pigeons as a young man living in Soweto in the 60s & 70s”.
The price of big game in South Africa has reached astronomical levels over the last decade, although the bubble seems to have burst a bit in recent years. Nonetheless, it is definitely plausible that a sale of this nature at Phala Phala could bring in many millions. Unfortunately for Ramaphosa, the wildlife trade is also known to be awash with questionable and under-regulated dealings.
Was the money that was stolen really hidden in a couch?
Fraser’s affidavit alleged that the money taken by the thieves was being “concealed in [Ramaphosa’s] furniture”, which is an intriguingly vague description. Fraser did not mention a couch explicitly.
City Press reported that the furniture in question is “said to be a couch”, but it wasn’t clear what the source of that information was. Then again, couches do have a certain reputation for housing hidden treasure; someone once found an ancient Sanskrit text down the back of a sofa.
One thing which seems undisputed is that the theft was almost laughably easy. Fraser’s affidavit says the thieves snipped a perimeter fence and slipped into the farmhouse through a ground-floor window. Ramaphosa’s farm manager told City Press that the culprits arrived on foot and that there was “no indication that the robbery was carried out in a sophisticated manner”.
Why was security so weak at the President’s property?
South Africans are never happy. First, we all went nuts about former president Jacob Zuma’s special “security features” at his Nkandla home; now we’re questioning why the next president didn’t have enough special security features at his private property.
It is one of the darkly comic aspects of this saga that the outcry over the Nkandla expenditure is actually being cited as an explanation for Phala Phala’s vulnerability.
“Ramaphosa didn’t want us to install security there because of what happened at Nkandla,” a source told News24. These presidents of ours just can’t win!
So Ramaphosa got robbed. Why would he try to hush that up?
That is one of the many four-million-dollar questions swirling around this affair.
A Presidency insider told Haffajee that Ramaphosa did not want to raise existing panic over security on farms in particular, given the political temperature around that specific crime category already.
The insider also intimated that there was nothing untoward in itself about not going public with the theft, claiming that former presidents Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma had experienced home robberies and kept that information private.
There are other potentially plausible reasons why Ramaphosa may have tried to keep the theft secret.
One might have been to prevent knowledge getting out about how simple it seems to have been to rob the President’s farm, which could embolden all of us other criminals to have a go.
Another possible reason, which is frankly more likely, is that Ramaphosa was acutely aware of just how bad the optics would be when it came to the President of South Africa — a country where children are literally starving to death — having such an insane amount of cash lying around unsecured at his home.
His awareness of the unseemliness of the kind of money thrown around in the big-game trade was evident in 2012, when Ramaphosa infamously (and unsuccessfully) bid R19.5-million for a buffalo cow, and then apologised, saying: “I regret it because it is an excessive price in the sea of poverty. I belong to a community and it was one of those moments when I was blind-sighted.”
Arthur Fraser’s theory, eagerly taken up by the Economic Freedom Fighters, seems to be that Ramaphosa needed to keep everything on the down-low because the source of the money was dodgy. There is no evidence currently publicly available either to confirm or disprove that notion, and Fraser appears not to have presented any to the police at this point.
Is it illegal not to report a crime to the police?
Of course not. Given the existing lack of confidence in the SAPS, many of us only bother to report crimes like theft to the police if we need a case number for insurance paperwork.
EDIT: It has been correctly pointed out that it is, in fact, a criminal offence not to report certain types of crime to the police. Someone stealing your money, however, is not among them.
So what exactly is illegal about Ramaphosa’s handling of the issue?
Much is uncertain without further concrete details, but the allegations made by Fraser are certainly troubling.
There are two arms to Ramaphosa’s potential legal troubles: the first involving the money kept at Phala Phala and the second regarding the handling of the alleged robbers.
In simple terms, you are not allowed to undertake such high-value cash transactions without informing the authorities. The Financial Intelligence Centre Act states that all cash transactions of R25,000 or more must be reported to the Financial Intelligence Centre (FIC) “no later than 2 (two) days” after becoming aware of such a transaction.
It is unclear whether the alleged Phala Phala game sale was indeed reported, as the FIC is staying tight-lipped on the matter. As is the South African Revenue Service (SARS), with another issue being whether Ramaphosa reported this income to SARS. The South African Reserve Bank is also declining to comment on whether Ramaphosa may have violated exchange control policies with regard to the sum of dollars involved.
Opposition parties have called on the FIC, SARS and the South African Reserve Bank to urgently clarify whether Ramaphosa followed the required legal process involved in a transaction of this nature.
When it comes to the alleged attempts by Rhoode and Co to track down the robbers, there are multiple potentially illegal elements to this extrajudicial project. One would be the alleged kidnapping of suspects. Another would be Fraser’s — currently uncorroborated — claim that Rhoode entered and exited Namibia, in pursuit of the suspects, without being legally processed through border control.
A big no-no would also be the alleged pay-offs made to the culprits. If this happened, prosecutors might well agree with Fraser that these amount to “corruption in contravention of the Prevention of Corrupt Activities Act No 12 of 2004” and also potentially to obstructing the course of justice.
What is critical here is: how much can Ramaphosa be proven to have known about these activities?
It is Fraser’s (again uncorroborated) contention that all of Rhoode’s actions after the robbery were carried out not just with the full knowledge of Ramaphosa, but on his direct orders. For the President of South Africa to have instructed his bodyguard to engage in this kind of illegal vigilantism would render Ramaphosa’s position untenable.
This is why this story, despite its surreal elements, is indeed extremely serious.
What happens next?
Police Minister Bheki Cele on Tuesday appealed for the police to be “given space” to conduct an investigation.
Ramaphosa has indicated that he will voluntarily submit himself to the ANC’s Integrity Commission — not a body historically renowned for its commitment to accountability — over the matter.
In the meantime, sharks are circling the President both within and outside the ruling party. Known Ramaphosa adversaries and ANC National Working Committee members Tony Yengeni and Lindiwe Sisulu were reported on Monday to be already lobbying for Ramaphosa to step aside until the matter is resolved.
United Democratic Front leader Bantu Holomisa made a similar call, urging Ramaphosa to take a “sabbatical” for a few months. The EFF said in a press conference on Tuesday that the interests of justice could not be served if a police investigation was conducted with Ramaphosa in office as President, due to the prospect of interference. EFF leader Julius Malema has also submitted parliamentary questions to Ramaphosa about the Phala Phala robbery, to which the President is obliged to respond within 10 days.
With the volume of both legitimate concern and politically opportunistic outrage showing no signs of abating, Ramaphosa would be well advised to gather every scrap of documentary evidence that might exist relating to the source of the stolen money and the robbery and play open cards with the South African public.
For as long as Ramaphosa refuses to do this, the sense that he does indeed have something serious to hide will grow. Global history teaches us that presidents have been toppled for far less.
Just one intriguing footnote. Fraser’s affidavit claims that one of the key members of Rhoode’s alleged vigilante team was “a local [Limpopo] farmer with investigative experience and capabilities”.