South Africa’s Deputy President, Accused of Corruption, Faces Uncertain Future

FILE -- Cyril Ramamphosa, center, is congratulated by David Mabuza, left, and others on becoming president of the African National Congress at its 54th conference in Johannesburg, Dec. 18, 2017. Mabuza, South Africa’s deputy president, who has long been dogged by accusations of corruption, abruptly postponed the ceremony to swear him in as a lawmaker on May 22, 2019, casting doubt on his future as the country’s second in command. (Joao Silva/The New York Times)



Norimitsu Onishi

c.2019 New York Times News Service



JOHANNESBURG — South Africa’s deputy president, David Mabuza, who has long been dogged by accusations of corruption, abruptly postponed the ceremony to swear him in as a lawmaker Wednesday, casting doubt on his future as the country’s second in command.

Just two hours before recently elected legislators were due to be sworn in at the National Assembly, the governing African National Congress released a statement saying that Mabuza had requested a delay in his case. The party said that he wanted first to respond to an internal report “in which he is alleged to have prejudiced the integrity of the ANC and brought the organization into disrepute.”

Mabuza has decided “to follow the dictates of his conscience and postpone his swearing in,” added the statement, which was attributed to President Cyril Ramaphosa.

The announcement — coming two days after Mabuza publicly expressed confidence that he would return as Ramaphosa’s No. 2 — could amount to the first significant shake-up inside the African National Congress since the general election this month. The party held on to power but, reeling from widespread voter disillusionment about endemic corruption, won its lowest share of the national vote since the end of apartheid in 1994.

In South Africa, the president chooses the deputy president and other Cabinet members from among the members of the National Assembly. Ramaphosa is expected to announce those selections next week and it is unclear what would happen if Mabuza were not in the assembly by then.

The deputy president has usually succeeded the president to become the nation’s leader — a tradition that had positioned Mabuza to eventually take over from Ramaphosa.

Ramaphosa has been under increasing pressure to clean up his party. During the prelude to election day, the ANC’s own integrity commission recommended that many senior figures implicated in acts of corruption — including Mabuza — be stricken off the party’s candidate list.

Party leaders, wanting to avoid internal warfare during the campaign, said that they would consider the commission’s recommendations only after the election.

Most of the lawmakers accused of wrongdoing in a long-running government inquiry into state corruption, including close allies of Ramaphosa, were sworn in Wednesday, but two of them had withdrawn their names from the ANC’s parliamentary list a day earlier. One of the two, Malusi Gigaba, is a former finance minister who was found guilty of lying under oath to Parliament and was a close ally of Jacob Zuma, the scandal-tainted former president who resigned last year.

On Monday — following days of speculation in the local news media that Ramaphosa would replace Mabuza as South Africa’s deputy president — Mabuza dismissed the reports.

“All the speculations are wrong,” he told reporters.

Mcebisi Ndletyana, a political scientist at the University of Johannesburg, said, “For now, the announcement is positive for the country and for good governance. But it’s too early to tell whether it’s good politically or not.”

Ramaphosa, who is still struggling to unify the African National Congress behind him, appointed Mabuza as his deputy after becoming president in February 2018. A longtime ally of Zuma, Mabuza switched sides at the last minute at the ANC’s internal election in December 2017, handing Ramaphosa a narrow victory to become party leader and, eventually, the country’s president.

Mabuza’s role in Ramaphosa’s ascendancy has been a cloud over the president.

Mabuza was the subject of an investigative article in The New York Times in August that described his rise in Mpumalanga, for decades one of the most corrupt provinces in South Africa.

Using public funds, especially those earmarked for education, Mabuza and his allies built one of the most powerful political machines in the country, turning Mpumalanga — a small province in the east of the country with little economic clout — into the ANC’s second biggest voting bloc at the party election that propelled Ramaphosa to the presidency.

In a letter to The Times, Mabuza wrote: “I abhor corruption.” The article fueled widespread debates in Parliament and in the news media over Mabuza’s fitness to serve as deputy president, but Ramaphosa has made no public comment.