ANC supporters had set the T-shirt on fire in front of the magistrates’ court in Bloemfontein, the capital of the Free State. The incident took place on 13 November 2020 when Ace Magashule, the ANC’s secretary-general and the province’s premier from 2009 to 2018, had just surrendered to the courts. His supporters blame President Ramaphosa for his downfall.
The Free State strongman is being prosecuted on charges of corruption involving a contract for an asbestos removal audit in 2014. He shares the docket with 15 other people (10 individuals and five companies) and is facing 70 charges. He denies all the accusations levelled against him. He will appear before the court for the pre-trial of the case on 3 November, which also happens to be his 62nd birthday.
Elias Sekgobelo Magashule was born in 1959 in the township of Tumahole in Parys, Free State. Although he was originally nicknamed ‘The Ace’ for his skills as a footballer, the name later came to be associated with his political manoeuvres. Under the apartheid regime, he led his life as a freedom fighter, but with blurred lines around the details. His activist past has been greatly exaggerated, according to an investigation by journalist Pieter-Louis Myburgh. His little arrangements with the people in power guaranteed him a great career after apartheid ended in 1994, “given the ANC’s propensity to politically reward its members according to their contribution to the liberation movement,” the journalist says in his book Gangster State, which was published in 2019.
Magashule became an apparatchik. From the 1990s onwards, he headed the ANC’s provincial division and held a series of ministerial portfolios (economic affairs, transport, agriculture and culture) within the Free State government. Magashule was able to obtain these positions because he exerted a lot of influence in this historically divided province. Through his various appointments as a member of the executive council (MEC), he aimed to calm the territory that saw the birth of the ANC in 1912. Magashule seized the opportunity to get his hands on resources, some of which he is accused in the courts of misappropriating for his own benefit.
As premier in 2009, he extended his control over the province’s financial affairs. Myburgh says there was “a tyrannical sense of centralisation” and even calls Magashule a “state captor”, as if he had kidnapped the entire province. Another one of his nicknames is ‘Mr 10%’, which refers to the share that Magashule allegedly pocketed from some public contracts. He, however, says in his defence that he “never took a cent from the government”.
It is obvious that the objective is to weaken us, the ANC base. We know their agenda: they want to eliminate us. We are afraid to drink a glass of water or tea these days.”
These leaks in public finances are undermining the province. “He has brought it down,” says political scientist André Duvenhage, who is originally from the province. “He is responsible for the endemic corruption and the destruction of local government structures. There is not much left of the Free State today,” he says. Magashule does not agree with this assessment. “Did you ever hear communities complain during our tenures?” he says in response to journalists’ questions.
A grassroots populist
The native of Tumahole’s always brings up the public when he feels he’s being attacked. “You media don’t know me. Go to the field, go to the masses, go to the churches,” he tells journalists, to whom he likes to lecture. The man is somewhat impressive. He sports a shaved head, rectangular-rimmed glasses, a stern appearance and frowning eyebrows that seem to scold you, but his wardrobe is anything but fancy. “I’m just a simple, modest leader,” he says.
A populist, Magashule knows better than anyone how to use the grassroots. His power comes from the branches of the ANC, the presidential party’s local offshoots. “If you control enough branches, you control a region. If you control enough regions, you control a province, and if you control a province, you can sit at the big table,” says Myburgh. This strategy inspires Duvenhage to make a comparison. “He is a man of the field like Zuma and unlike Ramaphosa or former president Thabo Mbeki, who are elite politicians,” he says.
Strategically aligned, Magashule and Jacob Zuma played off each other to reach the pinnacle of power in the late 2000s. Under Magashule’s influence, the Free State supported Zuma’s presidential bid. After his election, Zuma returned the favour and offered Magashule the Free State’s leadership. Ace then joined the ‘Premier League’, an alliance of provincial premiers who supported Zuma.
Zuma’s fall from grace in 2018, due to corruption scandals, acted as a lightning rod. Magashule, who was initially spared the thunderbolt of scandal, managed to rise to the position of ANC secretary-general at the congress that saw Ramaphosa become party president. On the one hand, Ramaphosa was elected on the promise of a new dawn, free of corruption; while on the other hand, Magashule, a controversial Zuma ally, represented a rival faction. The cohabitation lasted a long time.
His indictment for corruption on 10 November 2020 provided an angle of attack for his opponents. After digging into the party’s guidelines, the ANC leaders found a resolution that had been lying dormant at the bottom of a page. “Leaders and members of the ANC suspected of corruption must stand down from the party until their names have been cleared,” the text says.
Magashule attempted a diversion. “Why are you in such a hurry to enforce this resolution when there are so many others that are not [enforced]?” he said in a television interview. His procrastination led him to receive a letter on 3 May 2021, informing him that he had been temporarily suspended.
Magashule counterattacked with a letter suspending Ramaphosa as ANC president. This stunt demonstrated the secretary-general’s determination to defend his seat and defy the head of state. Ace hired Dali Mpofu, Zuma’s lawyer, but it was to no avail as the case failed in court.
The two veterans of South African politics – 79-year-old Zuma and soon-to-be 62-year-old Magashule – had worked together until they fell out during Rampaphosa’s presidency. Now they have joined forces and are spreading the same conspiracy theory. “It is obvious that the objective is to weaken us, the ANC base. We know their agenda: they want to eliminate us. We are afraid to drink a glass of water or tea these days,” Magashule said on the evening of 13 November 2020.
Despite his removal from the party, Magashule continues to call for an ANC vote in the 1 November local elections. “I can assure you that he will fight again, he has not lost all hope of controlling the ANC,” says Duvenhage.
His supporters are already looking ahead to the next ANC congress, which is scheduled for December 2022. “I have no doubt that he will mobilise. He will have branches behind him, people who will try to make an impact on the next ANC conference. Ace is playing by the same rules as Zuma: occupy the field.”
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