JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa's Cyril Ramaphosa is weathering the worst scandal of his presidency thanks to the backing of his party, which is keenly aware its best hope of retaining power at 2024 elections is to keep him as leader.
Battered as his reputation may be by the "Farmgate" affair, Ramaphosa remains the most popular figure in the African National Congress (ANC) and the best placed to reverse last year's municipal polls that saw the party's share of the vote drop below half for the first time.
Ramaphosa's job had been hanging in the balance after an inquiry panel appointed by the speaker of parliament looked into accusations that thieves had stolen large amounts of cash stuffed into furniture at his private game farm in 2020, and that he had failed to report the crime.
The theft raised questions about how Ramaphosa acquired the money and whether he had declared it.
Ramaphosa has denied wrongdoing and has not been charged. He has said the money was much less than the $4 million to $8 million reported, and that it was the proceeds of game sales at the farm.
At one stage local media said the president was close to quitting due to the allegations, claims his office denied.
The scandal has shaken the credibility of a man who narrowly won the presidential post in the African National Congress (ANC) party in 2017 on a promise to clean up endemic graft after a decade of corruption scandals under former president Jacob Zuma.
Zuma has denied any wrongdoing.
ANC SUPPORT, FOR NOW
In a show of support for Ramaphosa, the ANC said on Monday it would tell its lawmakers to vote against adopting the report alleging misconduct when it comes up for debate on Dec. 13.
Before his ouster, Zuma had survived several no confidence votes in parliament after ANC's lawmakers were told to rally behind him. His resignation come only after he lost support within the ANC.
Ramaphosa has the party's backing, for now. ANC Treasurer-General Paul Mashatile said on Monday the decision was made in the best interests of the country and to secure stability, without elaborating.
A show of unity was needed ahead of the ANC's elective conference starting on Dec. 16 to pick new party leaders in preparation for general elections in 2024.
Ramaphosa, seeking a second five-year term, received the most votes from branches of the ANC heading into the elective conference.
Trade union group COSATU, an alliance partner of the ANC, said calls for Ramaphosa to step aside were "premature".
"It is only fair and just for him to be given an opportunity to read and dissect the report with his legal team to ensure that in the end justice prevails," COSATU said.
Ramaphosa has challenged the panel's findings in court.
The rand currency and government bonds weakened sharply last week after the report was made public and rumours that Ramaphosa was to resign followed. Markets have since stabilised.
"The market is still willing to give him benefit of the doubt," Yvette Babb, an emerging market fixed income investor at William Babb, said, while independent Johannesburg-based analyst Marisa Lourenco said the bigger concern was that "someone could come in from the (Zuma) faction ... and derail some of the progress that Ramaphosa has made."
It seems likely Ramaphosa will contest the leadership of the ANC in national elections in 2024, which for the past three decades has decided who leads the country.
But he faces an uphill battle.
"Whatever happens to Ramaphosa ... he will find it increasingly difficult to retain that corruption-busting credibility," said Daniel Silke, director of Political Futures Consultancy. "Even if he escapes the worst."
South Africa's main opposition party, the liberal Democratic Alliance, has called for an early election while the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party has said Ramaphosa should stand down.
"Ramaphosa is fighting as if he has not done anything wrong," EFF leader Julius Malema said on Monday.
Some analysts say Farmgate raises concerns only over his private business dealings: there has been no suspicion of the kind of public sector corruption that tainted Zuma.
The investigation into Ramaphosa's conduct began after Arthur Fraser, a former spy chief in Zuma's administration, asked police to probe alleged money laundering and corruption over the cash kept at his farm.
Political analyst Ralph Mathekga said the scandal had left many people confused as the probe is seen to have been orchestrated by Ramaphosa's critics within the ANC, which has members who belong to a faction loyal to Zuma.
Civil society has also been quiet, in contrast to public efforts to push for Zuma's ouster. This is "because by pushing for his resignation they will be completing the job started by a faction within the ANC", said Mathekga.
Political analyst Ongama Mtimka said while there were rumblings of discontent on social media platforms, Ramaphosa had yet to push South Africans' patience to the limit.
"It takes more than the existence of grievances, discontent, for South Africans to take to the streets," said Mtimka.
"It always takes politicians who have their own agendas to mobilise people to take action."
(Additional reporting by Rachel Savage and Bhargav Acharya in Johannesburg and Wendell Roelf in Cape Town; Editing by James Macharia Chege and Nick Macfie)