South Africa president cleared of corruption charges
© WikiMedia (Isac Nóbrega/PR)
South Africa president cleared of corruption charges

The High Court of South Africa in Pretoria cleared South African President Cyril Ramaphosa of corruption charges on Tuesday.

The president made an inaccurate statement before the Parliament in 2018 concerning a campaign donation made to his son by African Global Operations. He later wrote a letter to the Parliament to clarify the error. The Public Protector made multiple findings against the president, including corruption and money laundering.

In a scathing opinion, the court found the Public Protector in error and that she misrepresented the law in her case.

Concerning the accusation that the president misled Parliament, the court stated “the Public Protector was confused about the legal foundation for her finding. … For some inexplicable reason, the Public Protector reframed the paragraph [of the Executive Code from which the charge was brought] and the test.”

The court explained that what the Public Protector presented as a quote from the Code was errant both in her changing of “willfully misled” to “deliberately or inadvertently misled” and by including a case-specific connection within the supposedly quoted text.

The problem is that the Public Protector introduced the element of inadvertent misleading of Parliament into the Code. This is entirely at odds with the text of the Code. It also introduces an entirely different test: whether in legal terms, or even in common sense terms, there is a material difference between conduct that is willful and that which is inadvertent. The one simply cannot be mistaken or interchanged with the other. This error and confusion are repeated throughout the Report.

The Court held that “the President is correct in his submission that the Public Protector’s confusion permeates her entire consideration of this issue” and the finding “is fatally flawed due to a material error of law.”

Arguing in the alternative, the court also rejected the possibility that the president acted unethically in his answer before the Parliament, stating that “the evidence before [the Public Protector] clearly established that he acted honestly and in good faith when he answered [the] question.”

The court further held the Public Protector did not have jurisdiction to investigate the campaign fund. “The outer limits of the Public Protector’s competence remain limited to state affairs, thus excluding the activities of the CR’17 campaign.”

The money laundering case was also dismissed both because there was insufficient evidence and because the charge was brought under the Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Activities Act 12 of 2004 (PRECCA). However, “PRECCA has nothing to do with money laundering.” Money laundering is covered under the Prevention of Organized Crime Act (POCA) and the Financial Intelligence Centre Act.

There is no evidence of “several intermediaries” as stated by the Public Protector. … What the evidence shows is that there was one straightforward transaction. … To state the obvious, the question framed by the Public Protector to investigate possible money laundering was not based on the evidence at her disposal. In fact, it was not based on any evidence at all.

The court also chastised the Public Protector for her lack of diligence in investigating the money laundering charge and lack of legal knowledge.

Clearly the Public Protector had no foundation in fact and in law to arrive at her finding … of money laundering. In addition the Public Protector based her finding on legislation that has nothing to do with the offence of money laundering. The conclusion is inescapable that in dealing with this issue the Public Protector completely failed to properly analyse sic and understand the facts and evidence at her disposal. She also showed a complete lack of basic knowledge of the law and its application. She clearly did not acquaint herself with the relevant law that actually defines and establishes the offence of money laundering before making serious unsubstantiated findings of money laundering against a duly elected head of state. Had she been diligent she would not have arrived at the conclusion she did.

Former opposition leader Mmusi Maimane, who originally asked Ramaphosa about the campaign donation, made a statement following the court’s decision. He said that Ramaphosa must account for the money. “It is about accountability,” he says.

The Economic Freedom Fighters, the third-largest political party in South Africa, vowed to “appeal the ruling with the Constitutional Court.” In the statement, they “categorically reject[] the ruling” and “reject the logic that Ramaphosa did not personally benefit from the CR17 campaign funds.”