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Sensemaker: Phala Phala

Sensemaker: Phala Phala

What just happened

Long stories short

  • The UK’s RMT union announced extra rail strikes including one on Christmas Eve. 
  • Ukraine claimed to have shot down 60 of 70 missiles launched at its power grid. 
  • Kirstie Alley, star of Cheers and Look Who’s Talking, died of cancer at 71.

Phala Phala

South Africa’s ruling African National Congress has rallied to the defence of President Cyril Ramaphosa in the face of efforts to impeach him. Ramaphosa stands accused among other things of 

  • tax evasion;
  • undeclared foreign currency holdings;
  • failure to report the theft of at least $580,000 sewn into a sofa at his Phala Phala farm; and
  • misuse of state resources in assigning a presidential bodyguard to track down the suspects.

This is the Ramaphosa who fought apartheid alongside Mandela, built a business empire in mining, farming and telecoms in the years of Black Economic Empowerment, and last month made a state visit to the UK as the first official guest of Charles III.

He denies all wrongdoing and yesterday won the formal backing of the ANC’s leadership, which has instructed its MPs to vote against impeachment proceedings in parliament. Since they hold 57 per cent of the seats, he’s safe for now.

So what? 

The allegations are detailed and serious. A timeline: 

May 2019 – Ramaphosa leads the ANC to victory in national elections with 57.5 per cent of the vote on an anti-corruption platform.

February 2020 – At least $580,000 stuffed in a sofa is stolen from Ramaphosa’s farm at Phala Phala, in Limpopo province. 

June 2022 – Arthur Fraser, South Africa’s former spy chief and an ally of Ramaphosa’s predecessor, Jacob Zuma, makes a criminal complaint against Ramaphosa about the Phala Phala theft. 

30 November – An independent panel appointed by parliament concludes that Ramaphosa should be investigated and possibly impeached. The panel’s report includes allegations by Fraser that the sum stolen from the farm was in fact between $4 million and $8 million and that another $20 million was “moved” elsewhere when Fraser asked for Ramaphosa to be investigated; and Ramaphosa’s claim that the $580,000 he admits was stolen was the proceeds of the sale of 20 buffaloes.

5 December – ANC leaders agree to back Ramaphosa and instruct MPs to block impeachment efforts in a parliamentary session scheduled for next week. 

The context. Rolling blackouts, rising unemployment and violent crime and endemic political corruption have left South Africans despairing of the ANC. “Forget that stuff about a rainbow nation. I don’t know why anyone would support the ANC,” says Nyanda Lawrence, a bookshop assistant in northern Johannesburg. “I don’t know who to support. I am furious with the ANC and… everything.”

Ndaba Mahlangu, who came to South Africa from Zimbabwe looking for work in 2005, says South Africa is failing. “The heroes from the ANC are failing, and we are getting to a point with youth unemployment that no one knows what to do, or who to vote for.” 

The ANC holds a leadership vote at its party conference later this month. South Africa’s next scheduled national elections are in 2024. 

The ANC, with nearly three times as many seats in parliament as the next biggest party, can still circle its wagons round an embattled leader. But having done so for nine years for Zuma (eventually jailed for contempt of court), the former liberation movement is now, for many, a byword for graft. It could lose its overall majority for the first time in 2024.

The alternatives. If the ANC does lose power, unstable coalitions beckon at best. The Democratic Alliance and the hard-left Economic Freedom Fighters currently command barely 30 per cent of the popular vote between them. Within the ANC, if Ramaphosa were to be unseated, he’d be replaced as things stand by his deputy, David Mabuza, just back from the latest in a series of private trips to… Moscow. 

world cup 2022

Could Ronaldo be the new face of Saudi soft power?

Paul Hayward

If Cristiano Ronaldo signs for the Saudi Arabian club Al-Nassr for a reported £173 million a year, his new employers will need to wait two games before playing him. Ronaldo is under a two-game ban in world club football for knocking a phone out of a fan’s hand at Everton in April. At least joining Saudi Arabia’s annexation mission will help him pay the accompanying £50,000 Football Association fine.


Hooked on gas

About 15 per cent of German manufacturing firms have cut production to save energy costs in the past six months. In the next six, nearly 40 per cent plan to. Cutting production is a last resort, after finding all the efficiencies available. It means lower output, revenue and profit for the firm, fewer jobs for Germans and lower tax revenues for local and federal governments. Which is why the FT says Germany’s business model is bust. In a must-read Big Read it focuses on BASF, the chemicals giant, whose Ludwigshaven plant has stopped making its own ammonia since the start of the war (ammonia is a feedstock for dozens of BASF’s products) because with no Russian gas and high costs for imported LNG imported ammonia is cheaper. More broadly, Germany has “outsourced its security to the US, its export-led growth to China and its energy needs to Russia,” Constanze Stelzenmüller wrote for Brookings earlier this year. No one can accuse Germany of not making things people want, but it bet big on globalisation and globalisation is in full retreat. 


Long ranger?

Is it possible that Ukraine has built its own drone capable of striking deep inside Russia? If so, it might explain twin explosions yesterday at the Engels-2 air force base near Saratov and another military air base 150 miles from Moscow. Neither blast put the airfields out of action – both are Cold War-era facilities built to withstand direct strikes from Nato – but two aircraft were reported damaged and the Guardian’s Luke Harding said there was “speculation Kyiv has developed a strike drone with an astonishing 1,000km range”. That would indeed be long compared with the Turkish Bayraktar drones and Iranian “kamikaze” drones already in use in this war, but not compared with the 1,850 km range of a US Reaper drone. The US has been careful, publicly at least, not to supply hardware enabling Ukraine to strike inside Russia. Ukraine still managed to damage the Kerch Strait Bridge linking Russia and Crimea, although Putin drove across most of it yesterday in a Mercedes.

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Baby hunger

Parents are resorting to skipping feeds and watering down formula because of inflation, according to the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (Bpas). Research conducted by Bpas found the cost of major brands’ formulas has gone up by between 9 and 17 per cent since August 2021. The cheapest formula on the market went up by 22 per cent even though UK inflation rate is currently 9.6 per cent. The government provides a Healthy Start allowance to parents of £8.50 a week, but it hasn’t been topped up in line with the rising cost of formula. Michelle Herd, co-founder of a baby food bank in Scotland, says she’s seen an “enormous increase” in referrals and fears they “will see babies in hospital malnourished” if action isn’t taken. A nutrition spokesperson from Nestlé, which produces SMA formulas, said cost rises in “raw materials, energy, packaging and transportation” made it necessary to push up prices in order to maintain product quality. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Haiti held hostage

Haiti is at the centre of converging crises. Nearly 100,000 people have fled Port-au-Prince, the capital, due to gang violence, according to the United Nations, which has also called for $3.2 million to respond to a deadly cholera outbreak. Gangs now control around 60 per cent of the capital and terrorise its civilians. The country’s caretaker prime minister, Ariel Henry, took power after President Jovenel Moise was assassinated last July, and he cannot reach his own office because armed groups control the area. Almost half the population faces acute hunger. But no international force is keen to get involved. The BBC’s Orla Guerin’s report from Port-au-Prince is worth reading in full. 


No sex please

Indonesia’s parliament has passed a new criminal code that outlaws sex outside of marriage (punishable by up to one year in prison), bans unmarried couples from living together (six months in jail) and adultery. A previous attempt to pass a similar law in 2019 failed after widespread protests; rights groups say the new code is a “huge setback for a country that has tried to portray itself as a modern Muslim democracy”. The code also bans insulting the president or state institutions. To note: the rules are due to come into force in three years, and also apply to foreigners. Make the most of Bali while you can. 

And finally… Llamas have joined blank pieces of paper as a symbol of protest in China – the word for llama in Chinese is “grass mud horse”, which sounds similar to “fuck your mother”.  

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Giles Whittell

Additional reporting by Phoebe Davis, Peta Thornycroft and Jessica Winch.

Correction: Yesterday’s Sensemaker referenced €839 billion – this should have been €839 million. Apologies. 

Photographs Getty Images

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