South Africa


Who’s winning the battle of the bulls, Cyril or Ace? And will Busisiwe Mkhwebane survive?

Busisive Mkhwebane, Ace Magashule and Cyril Ramaphosa (Gallo)

Respecting a rogue Public Protector is a naive political strategy. In the brute world of real politics, Busisiwe Mkhwebane is an absolute risk to the Ramaphosa era.

There can only be one bull in the kraal, but not in the case of the African National Congress. Ace Magashule, the secretary-general, represents the other bull, second to President Cyril Ramaphosa. On Tuesday 18 June the ANC will hold a special meeting of the national executive committee (NEC) –its highest decision-making body – that will put the final stamp of approval on the list of portfolio committee heads in Parliament.

Magashule will no doubt try to ensure troops from his battalion are chosen to head up the committees. He is not likely to win, considering that his camp is in the minority in the NEC, although not by much. 

The “Magashule Battalion” has its base in the Jacob Zuma camp and style of politics, and the names of many of its prominent members are on the lips of participants at the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture. The former Free State ANC chair seems to be struggling with using the power that comes with the secretary-general’s office, whose actions carry a lot of weight as the administrator and spokesman-in-chief.

That he managed to get Pule Mabe to be party spokesperson – instead of someone from the Ramaphosa camp – showed from the get-go that the post-Nasrec ANC would be a constant site of skirmishes and power battles.

Magashule created confusion around the debate about the South African Reserve Bank two weeks ago, and more such manoeuvres can be expected. 

The secretary-general can use both his power and influence to drive the parliamentary caucus’s agenda. He is the point man for many moves in Cape Town. The chief whip normally bounces ideas off and receives marching orders from the SG at Luthuli House.

But Magashule has a political strategy problem. Because he is effectively a sworn enemy of The Buffalo’s progress, Magashule’s official power will be challenged at every turn by the Ramaphosa camp, starting with chief whip Pemmy Majodina. DJ Pemmy, as she is known, or the lady-with-the-big-hat, is a praise singer par excellence. She will serve her Union Buildings bosses every single day and loves a screaming match. Magashule will have that to contend with. 

The bigger issue is the direction Parliament in the New Dawn will take when it comes to caucus, which has a long history of being a docile body that rubber-stamps the executive’s programme, instead of a critical oversight institution. In terms of both political strategy and public institution revival, Parliament will be very interesting as the new term begins.

For example, there is the small matter of the Public Protector’s tenure. The ANC, not surprisingly, has been slow off the blocks in this saga and will now have to respond to a DA motion to impeach her. It was also slow on the land debate and followed a motion from the EFF. That the DA beat it to the task in proposing Busisiwe Mkhwebane’s removal from office may not necessarily be a strategic train smash for the ANC. If it votes in favour of the motion, it will not be seen as an out-and-out aggressor, Zuma-style, that cannot coexist with an adversary, although the outcome will still be the same.

The Public Protector behaves like a hired gun and remains a risk to political stability. The power that rests in her hands is lethal, yet her competence remains an open question because she appears not up to speed with her mandate or duties, to put it mildly.

Because of the jurisprudence created in the battle to remove Zuma, together with the original assignment of constitutional powers to that office, a delinquent in charge of a quasi-court such as the Public Protector can cause serious destruction. She has a few cases on her desk that involve Ramaphosa and Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan, among others. Judging by her guilt-tripping public statements recently – proclaiming to do the Lord’s work among other things – the smart money is on a medley of outcomes that will “set the cat among the pigeons”, confusing the hell out of everyone, including herself. It will take about two years to fight her reports in court, while a lethal political move in Parliament will end all talk right now and forever.

Problem is, Ramaphosa is a thoughtful leader and will want to be seen to respect Parliament and other public institutions. After all, he campaigned around the rebuilding of public institutions that had been eroded at the base by the corrosive Zupta gang.

However, respecting a rogue Public Protector is a naive political strategy. And in the brute world of real politics, Mkhwebane is an absolute risk to the Ramaphosa era. With the law of averages now on her side – having messed up gloriously a couple of times before – it is only a matter of time before she stumbles across a watertight legal case. That will be good for our democracy, no doubt. 

But we are not there yet and so far she has consistently demonstrated her incompetence. Tip-toeing around the Mkhwebane issue is like playing on the tracks when the train can be heard in the distance. This matter should have been handled last term already. Now that the elections are over, and there are no official events on our political calendar in the next couple of months, the backlash will be minimal.

The advocate has demonstrated her incapacity and the political sky will not fall should the obvious remedy be chosen.

But the ruling party is concerned about the deck chairs – who runs what portfolio committee – which is also important. 

Until the priorities and strategies finally align themselves, Mkhwebane will continue to have her weapons all trained, clumsily. yet with determination, at the New Dawn. DM


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