South Africa

ANALYSIS

‘Hands off our SG’: The ANC’s Retraction Contraction

ANC President Cyril Ramaphosa and Secretary-General Ace Magashule during the party’s Limpopo provincial conference on June 24, 2018 in Polokwane. Photo by Gallo Images / Sowetan / Antoio Muchave

The arrival of the explosive book that strongly links ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule and a decades-long looting spree in the Free State resulted in nationwide consternation. Almost as soon as SA’s main Sunday newspapers arrived in the bookshops, the ANC issued a statement of strong support for Magashule, demanding ‘Hands off our SG’, without addressing any merits of the revelations. Now, incredibly, it appeared the governing party seriously considered retracting that statement. And then decided to retract that idea. Really.

At the moment (at least for now…) the statement by the ANC on Sunday slamming the publication of extracts of the book still stands. But it appears that could also soon change. Or not.

The facts are not necessarily easy to follow. But they concern Ace Magashule, who has become the figurehead of the group that appears to oppose President Cyril Ramaphosa. And this tussle may leave him humiliated. Importantly, even the fact that a spokesperson said in public that they were considering retracting a statement that he gave permission to issue could be seen by some as a slap in the face. In essence, this all goes back to the importance of the relationship between the ANC’s leader and its secretary general.

On Sunday, after the publication of extracts of Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s book, Gangster State – Unravelling Ace Magashule’s Web of Capture, the ANC released a statement saying that it was part of a media campaign against the party. The sub-headline of the statement was Hands off our SG. It was as strongly worded as some of the statements from the deepest Zuma-era, and suggested that there was a great reservoir of anger against Myburgh and the SA’s entire media. It used words like “Stratcom” and “conspiracy” while conspicuously not addressing merits or making threats of legal action.

In the ANC, the secretary-general’s office has control of communication, in other words, they are the line manager for the spokespeople. (Of course, the deputy secretary-general has a role to play here too, as many media people who deal with Jessie Duarte on a regular basis would know – Ed.)Thus, this angry statement would have been published either at the behest of, or, at the very least, with Magashule’s strong permission.

Then, on Wednesday morning, the ANC’s acting national spokesperson Dakota Legoete spoke to Cape Talk’s Kieno Kammies. During that interviewhe said that the ANC was now preparing to retract Sunday’s statement. The conversation went like this:

Legoete: Related to that particular book I think we have consulted with our leaders as well as the officials of the ANC. I think that we will be issuing a statement to retract what we have said earlier on that particular matter…

Kammies: Are you going to retract that previous statement that said there was an orchestrated attack on the ANC?

Legoete: Yes, we are going to retract it.

WHAM!

This is a hugely significant moment. The ANC spokesperson has bluntly put across that the party will publicly retract the statement defending his own boss, the man who is supposedly running the entire organisation.

(As an aside here, the politics of the ANC’s spokespeople has become complicated. Legoete is still an Acting National Spokesperson even though Pule Mabe is now back in office as National Spokesperson… and no one seems to know what Zizi Kodwa’s position on this is… but he is still Head of the Presidency.)

But, amazingly, there was more to follow.

On Wednesday night Legoete confirmed to News 24 that they would not retract the statement, citing legal advice.

On Thursday morning, he told Daily Maverick that: “The SG, he’s taking legal action that may end up in court in the next two weeks, with him, and the City Press and the Sunday Times and the author of the book. If they end up in court, it’s not advisable to retract the statement. It would be an admission, it can be used by the other sides’ legal team.”

Legoete then referred to meetings the ANC has had with the SA National Editors Forum and eNCA(presumably about Duarte’s outburst to eNCAreporter Samkele Maseko) and said that the party was still committed to press freedom and doesn’t want to intimidate journalists.

All of this suggests that something may have shifted in the party after the publication of that statement on Sunday, and that that shift could have happened literally in the hours after it was published.

On Monday morning, Legoete had performed a round of radio and television interviews, spending much of his morning at the SABC in Auckland Park. By chance, he bumped into Myburgh in the studios of SAfm. He could not have been warmer or friendlier, shaking hands with the author and discussing how they actually knew each other from past interactions.

During his interview on air he played a straight bat, and was incredibly calm. All of the anger and emotion of Sunday’s statement seemed to have vanished. While he did mention that the party felt the timing was deliberate in terms of the election, he also felt it important to say that the ANC was not trying to censure anyone or the media in particular.

In terms of whether he could deny, on behalf of Magashule, the claims in the book, he said that he was “not the spokesperson for Ace Magashule” and that Magashule was consulting his lawyers. He also said that this was “more of a matter of Ace Magashule in the Free State rather than Ace Magashule as the secretary-general”. As parsing as it was, this already seemed to be stepping back from the statement issued the day before.

More was to come. On Monday night, Mabe, back in his job as national spokesperson, spoke to the SABC News Channel. During that interview, he appeared again to step back slightly from Sunday’s statement. Mabe said that Magashule had “said that he’s looking at the options and at the time I’m sure that he will be able to come and make a reflection”.

Again, there was no full-bodied defence of Magashule.

This suggests that in fact something indeed shifted before Monday’s special meeting of the ANC’s national executive committee. It may well be that there was a late Sunday intervention of some kind that directed Legoete’s Monday morning interviews.

This kind of division over communication in the ANC has happened in the past.

In December 2015, when then President Jacob Zuma fired Nhlanhla Nene as President, the ANC famously issued a statement “noting” the decision. There was no gesture of support or a simple “good luck” to Des van Rooyen on his appointment. At the time the party’s communication was controlled by Gwede Mantashe and this was the first public indication that Zuma’s moves were splitting the party.

Now, for a spokesperson merely to suggest in public that a statement issued under the authority of the secretary-general would be retracted could suggest that Magashule has lost support. Even if that retraction is then not issued in the end.

It may be that the publication of the statement crossed a crucial line, that it used the brand of the ANC to defend an individual from accusations of corruption. It may also be that the politics of communication in the ANC is actually more complicated than previously thought, if that’s at all possible.

This is also not the first time this has happened to Magashule. In 2018 he had to face the cameras and explain why it was wrong for him, as secretary-general, to meet privately with Zuma. His interviews in the media have been few and far between – he is far less of a public presence than Mantashe was. This is his choice, but it also means that he has not been able to change the perception that many middle-class voters may have of him. The situation will only get worse for him with any public appearance being dominated by questions from journalists about Myburgh’s book.

So then, what next?

The timing of Legoete’s walkback may not be entirely divorced from Monday’s NEC meeting that decided the party’s candidate list should be referred in its entirety to its Integrity Commission. While it was clear that this was a compromise of some sort, it was still a step back from the position that the candidates’ list submitted to the Electoral Commission was final, or compiled by legitimate means, although it obviously cannot be changed before the election.

There will be some who will see this as a sign that something has been shifting in the ANC, that the balance is moving back towards Ramaphosa. It’s too early to say that. And it may well be that that balance could be upended again by the result of the election.

Either way, it appears tensions in the party continue to build, and the tensions between the President and the secretary-general are strained. It has never happened before in the ANC since 1994 that the secretary-general and the leader were elected from opposing factions. The results of such an unworkable combo are in and they do not look good. It appears that the current situation is simply unsustainable over the longer term. DM

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