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An African National Congress parliament member celebrates after President Cyril Ramaphosa survives an impeachment vote in Cape Town, South Africa, on Dec. 13.ESA ALEXANDER/Reuters

South Africa’s ruling party has has defeated a proposed inquiry that could have led to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s impeachment, but the furor over a mysterious US$580,000 cash payment has left Mr. Ramaphosa badly wounded and losing his grip on the party.

Parliament voted 214 to 148 to reject the impeachment inquiry in a much-anticipated debate on Tuesday, despite an earlier legal report that found preliminary evidence that Mr. Ramaphosa may have violated anti-corruption laws. The report had investigated his handling of the large sum of U.S. cash hidden in a sofa on his game ranch - ostensibly a payment by a Sudanese businessman for a herd of buffalo.

Mr. Ramaphosa had written a resignation speech after he saw the scathing conclusions of the report by a legal panel on Nov. 30, according to widespread reports at the time, but his party colleagues persuaded him instead to fight the report in court and in Parliament.

The ruling African National Congress, which holds a parliamentary majority, ordered its MPs to vote against the proposed inquiry. Only five MPs broke ranks to support the inquiry, and one of the MPs later reversed her vote, saying it was an error.

Several high-profile ANC members, however, did not show up for the vote, signalling their unhappiness with the official line. And Mr. Ramaphosa will face a much tougher battle on Friday at the ANC’s leadership conference, its first such conference in five years, where his opponents will be better-positioned to seek his ouster.

Most analysts predict that Mr. Ramaphosa will survive the leadership challenge, mainly because he is the ANC’s best hope for success at the next national election in 2024. The ANC’s popularity has been drifting steadily downward for the past decade, and the party is now in severe danger of losing its majority in 2024.

Polls consistently show that Mr. Ramaphosa is more popular than his party, even though his image is now badly tarnished. Many ANC strategists want him to remain the official face of the party in the 2024 election. But he could become merely a figurehead, unable to rein in the internal ANC factions that have resented his campaigns against corruption and patronage, the traditional perks of power for many ANC officials.

The crucial test at the ANC conference will be whether Mr. Ramaphosa can retain control of its national executive, the powerful body that governs the party’s day-to-day decisions. Early indications suggest that the new executive is likely to be laced with Mr. Ramaphosa’s factional rivals, leaving him politically weakened and unable to pursue his agenda of economic reforms, at a time when South Africa is falling into a worsening crisis of electricity shortages and collapsing infrastructure.

William Gumede, a professor in the school of governance at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, noted that most of the ANC members who received the highest number of conference nominations from the party’s branches were facing corruption charges or had criminal convictions. “That’s a death knell for party renewal,” Mr. Gumede said in a published commentary this week.

If Mr. Ramaphosa is re-elected as the ANC’s leader, he will become the prisoner of a national executive filled with “corrupt, incompetent and violent leaders,” Mr. Gumede said. “The nominations signal that they accept violence, corruption and the collapsing state as normal, and that they are not interested in changing anything.”

After the ANC’s victory in the parliamentary vote on Tuesday, Mr. Ramaphosa is likely to be increasingly beholden to the party’s mainstream, which has been reluctant to expel members who have been accused of corruption. The vote showed that the ANC has little interest in a full public airing of the allegations about Mr. Ramaphosa and the U.S. cash payment, which would have been examined by the proposed impeachment inquiry.

Justice Minister Ronald Lamola, speaking during the parliamentary debate, said the report last month by the panel of legal experts who studied the Ramaphosa allegations was based on “speculative” and “hearsay” information and did not contain enough evidence to justify an impeachment inquiry. He complained that the report was influenced by “those among us who mine for dirty data in an unprincipled and illegal way.”

Most opposition MPs, however, voted in favour of the report. John Steenhuisen, leader of the Democratic Alliance, the largest opposition party, said Mr. Ramaphosa had sunk to the level of his predecessor, Jacob Zuma, who mobilized the ANC caucus to help him survive a series of non-confidence votes in Parliament on corruption issues before eventually resigning in 2018.

“It’s the exact same modus operandi,” Mr. Steenhuisen told the debate. “As long as you have the numbers in Parliament, you can make any scandal go away…. Have we learnt anything from the past, or are we prepared to break Parliament once more in defence of a leader who doesn’t want to be held accountable?”

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