ANALYSIS

The dawning of the Age of Ace – sort of, kinda, maybe

By Stephen Grootes 25 March 2019
Caption
African National Congress (ANC) Secretary-General Ace Magashule during a media briefing about his meeting with former president Jacob Zuma on September 11, 2018 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Alon Skuy)

When trying to examine the situation in the ANC to determine which groups, and their policies, are gaining traction and which are weakening, it is always important to look at particular personalities anchoring those groupings. And it appears that party Secretary-General Ace Magashule may have gained some ground of late.

Whether they want to or not, certain people become useful standard-bearers, they are indicators of what is really happening deep within the organisation. Over the last few months, it appears that the secretary-general of the ANC, Ace Magashule, has been able to consolidate, even increase, his power. This also appears to have happened at the expense of President Cyril Ramaphosa. This could have important implications for the ANC going forward. But it may also turn out to be a temporary victory, and that the situation over the longer term could still turn against Magashule.

In the history of the ANC from 1994 onwards, it appears there can be no more important relationship than that between the party’s leader and its secretary-general. Those with longer memories will remember how Kgalema Motlanthe was Thabo Mbeki’s secretary-general and played an important role in maintained support for Jacob Zuma after he was fired as SA Deputy President in 2005. That unyielding support from the party’s rank-and-file led to Zuma’s eventual victory in Polokwane.

Once he was president, Zuma was at his strongest when his relationship with Gwede Mantashe appeared at least politically close. After Mantashe moved against him, Zuma lost power steadily until the Nasrec conference, which handed power to an opposing camp of Cyril Ramaphosa, if only just.

In the case of Magashule and Ramaphosa, it is no secret that they came from different, and opposing, factions. For the time being, they have had no choice but to appear, in public at least, as if they are singing from the same hymn sheet.

That arrangement didn’t work that well.

Their differences are coming out into the open. Ramaphosa’s choice of State Security Minister, Dipuo Letsatsi-Dube, has been attacked by Magashule for accusing him of interfering with the process of drawing up the party’s candidate list for the elections. She seems to deny this, but the fact that this has spilt out into the open in the most bizarre way (there has been no official statement coming from the usual channels, instead a statement purporting to be from Magashule has appeared on other WhatsApp groups) suggests that the tension between them, and the two camps, is real.

At the same time, it seems important to note that the candidates’ list submitted to the Electoral Commission does appear to be an important victory for Magashule and the faction around him. The importance of this cannot be overestimated – it shows that Ace’s group won a battle over what has been perhaps the most important political process so far in 2019.

All of this is a big come-back from what must have been a humiliating series of events for Magashule in 2018. He was photographed meeting with Zuma, along with other members of that faction, in what was claimed to be a “secret meeting”. Then, to explain himself, he had to endure a round of interviews in which he looked anything but comfortable. Then came the statement that it had been wrong for him to hold that meeting, and finally, Ramaphosa himself used a Cosatu Conference to state: “If there is going to be any plot, it must be a plot to defeat poverty,” while union members hissed at the very mention of Magashule’s name.

At the time, it looked like this was an important series of small wins that could turn out to consolidate Ramaphosa’s power. Now, however, it looks like Magashule, and the people around him, such as Zuma himself and those around them, have been able to regroup, and fight back.

Some of this has happened simply because of Magashule’s position as secretary-general of the ANC. He chairs the committee that decides on the candidates’ list, and all disputes in regions and provinces come first to his office. The same office plays an important role in determining task teams and their assignments. This may explain how someone like Malusi Gigaba gets to resign from Cabinet in infamy, in full view of the public, but is able to be recycled in a task team dealing with ANC North West’s problems. In other words, some of Magashule’s fight-back has been successful simply for structural reasons and predefined powers his office holds.

But it should also be remembered that not all of Magashule’s successes are based on his current job. Perhaps the most important example of these was Supra Mahumapelo’s court successes. His two victories against the ANC’s national executive committee over the decision to dissolve the North West provincial executive committee appears to have given Magashule group much-needed fresh impetus. It made the Ramaphosa-led NEC look wrong, and suggested that it was not properly competent.

(It is important to note here that as he is the accounting officer for the ANC, it could be argued that these were legal victories against Magashule’s legally-held position, even though he was probably pretty pleased with the legal outcome. Such is the madness of the current ANC political fractures.)

Another important aspect to consider may also be that Ramaphosa has simply not had things his own way on issues of governance. As almost everybody knows (but not those living in Newcastle…) the biggest governance issue at the moment is Eskom and load shedding. A problem of this scale always reflects badly on a sitting president, regardless of reality. Presidents are the symbol of what is happening, and bear the ultimate responsibility for problems in government.

But what adds to this as a political problem for Ramaphosa is that it is his allies who are in charge of the situation now, Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan and Eskom Chair Jabu Mabuza, which adds to the perception that it is Ramaphosa’s team who can’t fix the problem, even as the evidence strongly suggests that it was created by Zuma and those around him.

Another point of weakening Ramaphosa, perhaps to the benefit of Magashule. And yet, while it does, for the moment, appear that Magashule’s power has increased significantly over the last few months, there are important boundaries to this.

One of these may well be that, regardless of his alleged underhand dealings behind the scenes, Magashule has done nothing really to increase his general popularity. Polls show that Ramaphosa is still hugely popular, and that his popularity towers over the ANC’s approval. If similar polls were taken of Magashule, it is likely that they would be far lower than that of the ANC. Unlike his predecessor Mantashe, Magashule has not interacted with the media very often, and has not spent much time in trying to persuade them to his side, which, in all honesty, would have been a Herculean task anyway.

(It should be remembered that Mantashe was perhaps the odd one out here: Motlanthe did not have such a high public profile when he was secretary-general – it seems to have been a deliberate tactic by Mantashe during his time in that office.)

However, Magashule also has another problem which has still not been surmounted. Like Deputy President David Mabuza, he has come to his national position in the ANC with only a provincial power base. In the past, all of those who have succeeded to high office (and been reelected to the Top Six) have appeared to have national power bases. So far, there is very little evidence that he has been able to translate his support from the Free State into support from across the country. This may now be his biggest challenge, and suggest that there are limitations to his political power.

For the moment, the trend of the last few months appears to have been a strengthening of Magashule’s political power, and of several important successes for the faction he appears to lead or symbolise. However, the balance of power can change fairly quickly. Ramaphosa’s signing of a new proclamation for a special unit at the National Prosecuting Authority could indicate that prosecutions for what happened during the State Capture era could be in the offing, and soon. This could have implications for Magashule at some point. (Stephen, this must be your understatement of the year so far! – Ed)

The Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture could also hear evidence that leads to a weakening of this faction.

In other words, this trend of the rising age of Ace Magashule is not necessarily set in stone – it could well be turned back, and perhaps, fairly quickly. But, for the moment, it is significant to note that it appears Magashule and his faction have indeed been able to strengthen themselves. And as the proof of just how strongly defined are the zero-sum times we live in South Africa these days, the man who has been weakened is President Ramaphosa. DM

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