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Parliament Chaos Evokes Zuma Era as Ramaphosa Allegations Swirl

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(Bloomberg) -- South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s attempts to address parliament descended into chaos this week as opposition party members hurled insults at him and tried to stop him speaking -- scenes reminiscent of the treatment faced by his scandal-dogged predecessor, Jacob Zuma.

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Lawmakers from the radical Economic Freedom Fighters held up proceedings for more than an hour on Thursday and over three hours on Friday, before being bundled out of the chamber by burly security guards or removed from an online platform. Their protest followed revelations that former spy chief Arthur Fraser laid charges against Ramaphosa for concealing the theft of more than $4 million from his game farm in February 2020.

“Ramaphosa and his handlers involved in the game-farming industry are illegally transacting in foreign currency and in cash,” EFF leader Julius Malema told reporters. “Ramaphosa must step aside.”

Fraser’s complaint is the first criminal allegation Ramaphosa has faced since he came took power came to power in February 2018. That’s in contrast to the multiple charges filed against Zuma including corruption, fraud, racketeering and money laundering; and last year the former president was sentenced to 15 months in jail for contempt of court.

Read: Mysterious Wildlife Farm Robbery Puts Ramaphosa on Back Foot

Ramaphosa on June 2 confirmed that money he earned by selling animals was taken while he was attending an African Union summit in Ethiopia, though far less than Fraser alleged, and denied doing anything wrong. When he finally did get to speak to lawmakers on Friday, he refused to provide further details about the crime, saying that “due process” had to take its course.

The president remained steadfast in declining to respond to a barrage of questions at a subsequent briefing to reporters.

Ramaphosa’s reticence to elaborate on what transpired has raised speculation that he has something to hide and detracted from his repeated undertaking to tackle the corruption that became endemic during Zuma’s rule. The furor could cast a shadow over his attempt to win a second term as leader of the governing African National Congress in December.

Prosecutors haven’t said whether they will pursue the case against Ramaphosa and the ANC hasn’t given any indication that it will turn on him. He’s committed to explaining himself fully before the party’s integrity committee and pledged not to interfere with an investigation by the Hawks, a police investigative unit.

The allegations against Ramaphosa are also being investigated by the office of the graft ombudsman, know as the Public Protector, which is headed by his long-term nemesis Busisiwe Mkhwebane. Her findings have been repeatedly overturned by the nation’s courts and parliament is holding an inquiry into her fitness to hold office. Ramaphosa suspended her on Thursday pending the conclusion of that process.

Read: Ramaphosa Suspends Graft Ombudsman Who Faces Impeachment Process

The president told reporters there was nothing underhand about the timing of his actions, which were permissible under the constitution and the investigation against him could still continue unhindered.

John Steenhuisen, the leader of the main opposition Democratic Alliance, warned Ramaphosa that the scandal will continue to dog him until he comes clean on how much money was taken, where he obtained it, why he hadn’t reported the theft to the police and whether any exchange-control laws were broken.

“I want you to imagine for a moment what all of this must look like to an ordinary South African,” Steenhuisen said in the parliamentary debate. “Normal people, law-abiding South Africans who have to save for months to pay for things like school uniforms, school fees and children’s birthday parties, cannot begin to imagine that kind of money. But you didn’t even report it to the police. Never mind getting it back. You didn’t want anyone to know it ever existed.”

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