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South Africa: Why the ANC is struggling to fire Ace Magashule

By Anna Maree
Posted on Thursday, 8 April 2021 12:04

Ace Magashule, the secretary general of South Africa's ruling African National Congress addresses University students during a protest outside Luthuli house, the ANC headquarters in Johannesburg, South Africa, 11 March 2021. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko - RC2Z8M959QM1

South Africa's governing African National Congress (ANC) has given its corruption-charged secretary general Ace Magashule until the end of April to step down or risk suspension. Magashule's fate is crucial to the balance of power in the ANC, which is home to forces that both support and are critical of President Cyril Ramaphosa's leadership.

At a meeting of the party’s national executive committee at the end of last month, Magashule was, as a concession, given a 30-day grace period to ‘consult’ with former ANC leaders.

So far, he has used this time to campaign publicly and meet with supporters. He also told a meeting of the party’s provincial secretaries that he would not be suspended or disciplined.

Some supporters also threatened to stage a ‘national shutdown’ on Tuesday 6 April 2021, but this did not materialise.

Choosing sides

The party’s order to Magashule to step aside has been hailed as a victory for President Ramaphosa, as he has promised to rid the party of corruption and weaken power bases in the ANC that he sees as a threat.

There are doubts over whether Magashule will comply. “It will be highly unlikely for Magashule to step down,” political analyst Sethulego Matebesi from the University of the Free State told SABC News.

“The whole notion of him saying he will still consult is only a footnote type of action. I think he’s deeply reflecting on what type of fight action he must take, actually. I can’t see that Magashule will just voluntarily step down.”

Magashule should have stepped aside in November after he was charged, along with seven others, with fraud and corruption related to a R255m ($17.5m) tender issued while he was Free State premier in 2014. When he failed to do so, the party’s integrity commission recommended he should.

Playing for time

Magashule has been delaying, asking for the ANC to clarify its step-aside rules first. After his second court appearance in February, Magashule told a press conference that the ANC’s national executive committee “has taken a clear decision to refer the guidelines to the structures of the ANC – from branches, regions and provinces” to discuss.

“These guys will never betray each other,” Dube says. “They might have a different interpretation to the step-aside rule, but what they agree on is that no one must step aside.”

Magashule’s argument is that branch representatives elect the national leadership and are the only ones who can decided to remove them. “This decision has been taken down to the ground. I don’t know what the ground will say, I can’t pre-empt,” he told journalists who asked him whether he would step down should the party leadership order him to do so.

Roots and branches

Insiders in the Ramaphosa camp, however, say the party’s leadership never asked branches to deliberate on this since the national leaders are the ones who should be deciding. “He says it’s only branches that can remove him, but it’s those same branches that passed that resolution,” a national executive committee member in Ramaphosa’s camp says, with reference to the rules that corruption-charged leaders should step aside.

Magashule has been working hard on the ground. “We know he is a very shrewd and crude politician, and that is a good combination for a politician,” says Ivor Sarakinsky, professor at the Wits School of Governance. “In all likelihood, he’s been building his base in various branches for some time already.”

He says it is difficult to tell the success of Magashule’s strategy. “We don’t know the numbers – there are too many branches – and we don’t know whether these are real or not.”

The ANC has not reported any audited membership figures since its 2017 conference, but in an update to the national executive committee in November, Magashule said that despite the Covid-19 lockdowns, party membership had grown by almost 25% to 1.4 million – the biggest membership ever.

Ramaphosa vs. Magashule

This could explain some of Magashule’s confidence. “If the ANC membership is increasing in a general environment where voter turnout is decreasing, the only inference can be that something doesn’t make sense,” Sarakinsky says. “Ace’s power is in certain branches, and that is a much harder battle to fight [than in the national executive council] because there are so many of them.”

Ramaphosa might have the upper hand in the party’s 86-member national executive committee, as a majority of this committee also serves in his cabinet and might want to appear loyal as a reshuffle is due soon. However, many have questioned whether Ramaphosa has had the time or inclination to build his support on the ground.

Ever since Ramaphosa’s election in 2017, there has been speculation that Magashule’s supporters would use the party’s mid-term gathering of branch delegates to weaken and even attempt to unseat Ramaphosa. Magashule denied this, telling a media briefing in December 2019 that “it is not true that there is a plot to oust Ramaphosa”.

The meeting was to be held in mid-2020, however due to Covid-19 lockdowns, the gathering was postponed to May. But with a third wave of infections in the offing in South Africa, there is now talk that the meeting might happen in August.

Sarakinsky says despite Magashule’s denials, he hopes “to speak through the delegates [to the national general council] and make life for Cyril as uncomfortable as possible, and to try to weaken him and open a leadership contest there”. The party’s elective conference is due next year.

The Zuma strategy

Magashule’s strategy comes from former President Jacob Zuma’s playbook, a Magashule sympathiser in the national executive committee told the Mail & Guardian newspaper recently.

In 2005, then-President Thabo Mbeki fired his deputy, Zuma, after a court ruled that the latter’s former financial adviser had a corrupt relationship with him.

The party’s national leadership forced Zuma to step aside as ANC deputy president, but at the national general council soon after, branch delegates rebelled and rallied for his reinstatement. Zuma was elected ANC president in 2007 and went on to become the country’s president, while Mbeki was removed by the party eight months before his term expired.

With talk from the Ramaphosa camp that the national general council might end up not happening at all, Magashule’s supporters told the Mail & Guardian they would instead try to push for a special conference to be held to force Ramaphosa to step down.

But, Sarakinsky says neither of the factions really know how strong they are in relation to each other. “This makes each faction nervous to act as the outcomes and consequences in advance are not clearly known.”

Who will make a move?

There is also the possibility that ANC leaders lack the political will to act because they worry about their own political futures. Xolani Dube, from the Xubera Institute think tank, says corruption unites the ANC’s Ramaphosa and Magashule factions, despite a ‘master narrative’ of division.

There really “is this interconnectedness when it comes to corruption in the ANC, so I wonder why we always think these guys are different from each other,” he says. This is evidenced by the fact that party leaders have switched between factions in the past.

“These guys will never betray each other,” Dube says. “They might have a different interpretation to the step-aside rule, but what they agree on is that no one must step aside.”

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