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World A new standard emerges in South Africa as ethical violations fell another cabinet minister

Then-South African Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba delivers a budget address in Cape Town on Feb. 21, 2018.

Mike Hutchings/Reuters

In the end, it was not the leaked sex tape or the crude parliamentary vulgarities that triggered the downfall of one of South Africa’s most powerful cabinet ministers. It was not even the corruption allegations that have swirled around him for years.

When Malusi Gigaba was finally forced to resign on Tuesday, it was because a court had found that he had told a lie. His resignation, the second by a cabinet minister for ethical violations in the past five weeks, was a clear declaration by President Cyril Ramaphosa that he wants to impose a new standard of integrity in a scandal-plagued government.

Mr. Ramaphosa’s predecessor, Jacob Zuma, had presided over nine years of worsening corruption and political turmoil before resigning under pressure in February. His cabinet ministers had almost never stepped down for lies or ethical breaches, no matter how strong the evidence. But with a national election expected in May, Mr. Ramaphosa is eager to persuade South Africans his promised “new dawn” is real.

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He still has far to go. An official inquiry into state corruption is regularly producing new revelations of wrongdoing. A clean-up of graft at state-owned corporations is still in the early stages. But by setting a new threshold for ethics in cabinet, Mr. Ramaphosa is beginning to set himself apart from the venality of the Zuma years.

Mr. Gigaba, the home affairs minister and a former finance minister, was an ambitious star in the ruling African National Congress with obvious aspirations for the country’s highest post. A colourful personality and former ANC Youth League leader who remains popular in many quarters of the party, he even gained some public sympathy this month when he complained that his phone had been hacked and a private video had been posted on social media showing him alone in a sexual act.

When an opposition MP taunted him in parliament a few days later, Mr. Gigaba responded by raising his pinky finger, apparently mocking the MP’s manhood. He quickly apologized, saying he had been under “strain.”

Despite the embarrassment that this must have caused the government, and despite years of allegations that Mr. Gigaba had helped the controversial Gupta business family to gain corrupt control over state enterprises, Mr. Gigaba was allowed to remain in cabinet until this week, when Mr. Ramaphosa faced a deadline set by the Public Protector, an independent corruption investigator with constitutional powers.

A report by the Public Protector’s office had ruled that the President must take disciplinary action against Mr. Gigaba by Wednesday for violating the ethics code by telling a lie under oath. It did not specify the exact action, and Mr. Gigaba vowed he would not resign. But after a meeting in which he made a failed attempt to win Mr. Ramaphosa’s support, Mr. Gigaba read the writing on the wall and handed in his resignation.

Last year, a South African court ruled that Mr. Gigaba had deliberately told “untruths” under oath during a court case in which he denied granting permission for a private terminal to be opened at South Africa’s biggest international airport. He appealed the ruling to the country’s highest court, but lost the appeal late last month.

“Minister Gigaba indicated in his letter of resignation that he was stepping aside for the sake of our country and the movement to which he belongs,” Mr. Ramaphosa said in a statement on Tuesday.

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He said Mr. Gigaba had resigned “to relieve the president from undue pressure” and to allow him to “do the best he can to serve the country and save it from this economic meltdown.”

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