South Africa

Analysis: When Ace Magashule met the National Press – pretty it was not

By Stephen Grootes 23 January 2018

The ANC claims to have turned over a new leaf, with a strong suggestion that things are going to change. If you had to distil the message coming from its leader, SA Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, you would include the words “renewal”, “anti-corruption” and “change”. But if you had to ask voters what they thought of the election of Ace Magashule as ANC secretary-general, you would probably get words like “corrupt” and “Guptas” with a summation that in many ways he represents all that was wrong, and still seems to be wrong, with the party. He did not enjoy his first formal press conference in the position he snatched by a whisker at Nasrec. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

The press briefing room at Luthuli House is one of the best equipped in Johannesburg. It has plenty of space, dozens of chairs, some cables for the radio journos, and steps to help out the TV people. Over many years it has been the domain of former secretary-general Gwede Mantashe. While he was in the position he made it his own, taking the time to get to know individual journalists, to crack jokes and generally appear to enjoy the experience; mostly due to his larger than life personality, he came to dominate these moments.

Before him, the secretary-general was Kgalema Motlanthe. He did not give many press briefings; they were usually hosted by Smuts Ngonyama who occupied a position known as the “head of the Presidency” in the ANC. He too didn’t appear to mind journalists much of the time (although his signature phrase all the way through 2007 was “there are no divisions in the ANC”…).

All of this meant that when the ANC spoke, when its top media-facing official gave a briefing, they could do so representing, first and foremost, the party. The message they sent was clear: it was what the ANC wanted to communicate. This clarity has now pretty much disappeared, changed in such a way that the image of the party is going to be badly damaged in the near future if something doesn’t give soon.

Over the weekend the Sunday Times and City Press splashed with the latest on the Free State Dairy scandal. As published in the #GuptaLeaks in June 2017, it involves huge amounts of money that was supposed to have been used to create a dairy industry and empower black farmers. Instead the money went to the Guptas. In one payment a whole R10-million went to Atul Gupta for no reason other than perhaps he was entering the wedding planning business. The man who appeared to make all of this happen was Mosebenzi Zwane, SA’s Minister of Mineral Resources. Zwane has spent his time in this portfolio lying, bashing the mining industry and helping the Guptas by threatening to to close down mines they want to own, as well as attempting to establish a government commission to investigate the banks which closed the Guptas’ accounts. Magashule obviously arranged Zwane’s appointment at the height of the Indian brothers’ reign in September 2015, just a few months before the then Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene was fired. An undisputed ruler of the Free State for decades, and a premier who gave his blessing to the Estina project, he was at the very centre of the scandal.

This was not going to be an easy briefing for Magashule.

It started on time. Which means that Ramaphosa’s demand that everything begin on time was being honoured. It was also the continuation of Mantashe’s tradition (the number of times he asked if the SABC were there or late again). And then came the long statement from the NEC, read out by Magashule. It didn’t say too much, but then it was never going to. Obviously, the big issue was always going to be about dealing with the Zuma issue. Magashule did the correct thing and confronted it head on. Well, sort of:

One of the things you may want to know”, he said, “is the discussion around President Jacob Zuma so you don’t spin and twist it, you hear it from the NEC. Indeed the officials were seized with this matter and the officials will remain seized with this matter. Because we had earlier said there will be continuous interaction between President Ramaphosa and President Zuma… The matter was left with the officials because it is a matter of interaction… There isn’t any resolution or any decision taken to remove President Zuma, as some say on social media.”

This seems to confirm the main gist of the reports from the weekend, that the Top Six are now actually dealing with when and how Zuma goes. It does make sense, in that a vote on this issue could be divisive and polling data shows how much in the ANC’s interests it would be for Zuma to leave sooner rather than later.

And then, to the questions we go.

The first person to grab the microphone was the Sunday Times’ Qanitah Hunter. Among other things, she wanted to know about the Vrede project. eNCA’s Thulasizwe Simelane put things incredibly plainly. Vrede, he said, “was a programme meant to benefit people… what is the relationship between yourself, your sons and the Gupta family that provided the right environment for this perversion? Will you take responsibility for creating this environment, for being cosy with the Guptas?”

At this point, the ANC’s spokesperson, Khusela Diko, tried to stop what was going to become a barrage, pointing out that Magashule was speaking only in his capacity as secretary-general, and not as Free State Premier. But this was not the time to try to stop a flood. Journalists now are lit, they have agency, and know that the public is with them. Some of the heroes of the Gupta Age are the reporters who broke the stories; the Financial Mail’s Sikonathi Mantshantsha was vindicated in the best possible way over the weekend with the appointment of the new Eskom board. Last year, even before the political situation changed, journalists left an event hosted by Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini because it hadn’t started as much as two hours after the scheduled time. Hacks are mad and are not going to take it any more.

So it was no surprise when Mahlatse Gallens, from News24 (but who is also President of the SA National Editor’s Forum), refused to accept Diko’s direction. She put it even stronger, asking Magashule, “Will you stand still in defence of the Guptas; you defended them as Premier of the Free State, do you still defend them as honest business people?”

It is an incredible jump from the SABC-dominated media of a province like the Free State to Joburg, where no one is scared of you. Many journalists would probably like nothing better than to be shouted at by Magashule – it could even see them trending.

His answer was that “where there is corruption the law must take its place, whether its Vrede or wherever. Let’s leave that matter, it’s with the NPA… My son has been working with the Guptas, it’s never been a secret… my son is not involved in the Vrede dairy, let the law take its own place… (sic).”

The problem that Magashule faces is a simple one. He does not have the respect of journalists or the chattering classes or opinion formers. The claims of corruption against him are simply too strong for that. And this was only his first press conference.

It will get worse.

More and more journalists will spend more time digging for dirt on him, and his enemies in the Free State will help them, gleefully. The ANC may talk all it likes about stopping corruption, but it will be met with laughter if the main official who speaks to the media is someone who is himself corrupt.

And no doubt Cyril Ramaphosa will be hoping that it is Magashule himself, that something happens, that some new, damning and career-ending information emerges.

This is not a sustainable situation. Something will have to give. DM

Photo: Ace Magashule at the ANC’s 54th conference in Nasrec (Daily Maverick)

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