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South Africa: Three scenarios for Ramaphosa’s corruption ultimatum

By Anna Maree
Posted on Thursday, 22 April 2021 16:34

President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers his State of the Nation address in parliament in Cape Town
President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers his State of the Nation address in parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, February 11, 2021. Esa Alexander/Pool via REUTERS

By May Day, South Africans will know whether President Cyril Ramaphosa really is in charge or not.

The governing African National Congress, which he leads, has given corruption-charged leaders — including Ace Magashule — until the end of April to step down from their positions in the party or government. Here are three scenarios on what might happen next.

This list includes the party’s most powerful full-time official, secretary general Ace Magashule, who has been contradicting the president at almost every turn.

The question now is whether Ramaphosa has the power to force him to go.

Why the ultimatum?

With just over a week left to the deadline, Magashule is still staying put. He has had an uneasy relationship with Ramaphosa, which can be traced back to when a very divided ANC elected both of them to the party’s top six leadership committee four years ago.

Ramaphosa went on to unseat Jacob Zuma as the country’s president, two months after becoming ANC president, in February 2018.

Magashule will only step down if everyone in the party facing serious criminal charges or allegations does the same,” some of his supporters have said.

The fraud and corruption charges brought against Magashule in November 2020 were as a result of Ramaphosa’s subsequent efforts to clean up large-scale corruption — or the ‘state capture’ under Zuma’s watch — by strengthening law enforcement and prosecution authorities.

The charges against Magashule relate to a large tender awarded by the Free State provincial government in 2014 when he was still premier.

Does ANC’s National Executive Committee have teeth?

Magashule has since resisted calls by the ANC’s 86-strong national executive committee, which is tipped in Ramaphosa’s favour, for him to step down in line with the party’s tightened rules on corruption. He also disregarded a recommendation by the party’s integrity commission that he should step down.

The ultimatum issued by the national executive committee, during a meeting at the end of March, stated that Magashule should use the month of April to consult with former ANC leaders about stepping down. He has already visited two of them, including Zuma, but it’s become clear that whatever he decides, Magashule will remain in the political scene

Who else in the ANC might step down?

Other ANC figures who have been charged with serious crimes and could be expected to step aside include former eThekwini (Durban) mayor Zandile Gumede, now on the ANC’s KwaZulu-Natal leadership, Mike Mabuyakhulu, a former provincial minister (MEC) and also on the party’s provincial leadership, and Dannyh Msiza, the party’s treasurer in Limopopo.

Mangaung (Bloemfontein) mayor Ollie Mlamleni was charged with Magashule and although he has been ousted from his position, the party was investigating reinstating him.

In the Eastern Cape, provincial minister Sindiswa Gomba and Buffalo City (East London) mayor Zukiswa Ncitha had already been asked to step down after being implicated in corruption related to Nelson Mandela’s funeral in 2013.

In Mpumalanga an ANC leader accused of raping his daughters had been asked to step aside too, and he is awaiting the outcome of his case to determine if he could make a come-back.

How could this play out?

There are three broad scenarios:

1. Magashule steps down and Ramaphosa’s New Dawn starts in earnest

The ideal situation for Ramaphosa would be if Magashule steps down, exits politics and concentrates on clearing his name in his corruption case, which resumes in August. This would have set a precedent for other ANC leaders facing corruption charges, to also step down. It would also clear the way for Ramaphosa to make good on his promise to root out rampant state corruption. But this is the least likely scenario.

Magashule might decide to step down once he is sure that his supporters in the party’s branches can force a special conference of the national general council, a five-yearly gathering of branch representatives which was cancelled last year due to Covid-19 restrictions. Zuma was reinstalled at such a gathering in 2005 when he faced corruption charges and was forced to step down as deputy president. Some of his supporters have mentioned a repeat of this strategy as an option.

Should Magashule not have the requisite support in ANC branches, which is likely, he could team up to form a breakaway party. This he could do with other disgruntled party members who supported a call for ‘radical economic transformation in South Africa, known as the RET Forces, including those who claim to have fought for the party’s military wing. There have even been threats of violence and disruption, and threats of a coup (this is very unlikely as South Africa’s army is not politicised).

The ANC’s candidate selection process, ahead of the local government elections on October 27, is likely to disgruntle members and cause the party to splinter into factions. As such, a new party could join forces with Julius Malema’s populist Economic Freedom Fighters — another splinter group — and fight the ANC’s leadership battles from the outside.

2. A defiant Magashule stays on

As the most powerful official in the ANC, Magashule could simply ignore the ultimatum and keep going to the office as usual. This might force the party to take drastic measures, such as instructing security officers to bar him from entering the building or bolting shut his office door.

Magashule recently managed to thwart attempts by the party’s human resources manager to suspend his head of office, Carl Niehaus, for insulting other ANC leaders in public. There was little that the party could do to prevent Magashule from continuing with his job, without making him look like a victim.

Magashule thrives on public walkabouts, and since he has sympathisers in the ANC’s media team, it would not be difficult to organise such engagements and pass them off as an election campaign. The party would create a bad impression if officials tried to prevent him from campaigning six months before the polls.

It’s difficult to say, however, whether his campaigning would have an impact on the ANC votes. Some voters have been known to prefer underdogs and those in trouble with the law such as Zuma or Magashule.

Magashule could be funded by those who made their money off corrupt government contracts and who are hoping to escape future prosecution.

Supporters have already said Magashule will only step down if everyone in the party facing serious criminal charges or allegations does the same; a move that could break up the ANC, as a number of leaders have been implicated in irregularities, including Ramaphosa. Lack of evidence of corruption means that these matters rarely go to court.

3. The ANC kicks the can down the road … again!

The most probable card left for Magashule is to apply for a court review of the integrity commission’s recommendation that he step aside. Court action against the party by its members and leaders is frowned upon, and party rules forbid it, but there is little the party can do if that happens.

This week, for example, his supporters appealed a court order to dissolve the ANC’s pro-Magashule provincial leadership in the Free State elected in a fraudulent process.

Court action by Magashule might also mean that the ANC would have to defer to the court process or find some kind of compromise — perhaps a political solution — in an attempt to avoid lawfare, which could damage credibility of the country’s institutions.

Even in the absence of legal processes, the party might opt for talks. For the past six months, Magashule has been pushing the party to find a compromise; he intends to do this for another 18 months, when the party’s next electoral conference is due.

Kicking the can down the road might be the best option for the ANC’s immediate survival, but it would seriously erode public trust in Ramaphosa and damage his chances for re-election by the party next year.

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