ANALYSIS

Flames are starting to lick at the man in the asbestos suit, Ace Magashule

By Stephen Grootes 2 September 2019
Caption
ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule at the ANC special Natioinal Executive Committee meeting at Nelson Mandela Boulevard Garden Court in Cape Town. Date: 20 May 2019, Photo: ESA ALEXANDER/SUNDAY TIMES

The real question is what it has been for several months – (when) will the National Prosecuting Authority act on ample evidence given against Ace Magashule and others at the Zondo Commission?

It has been suggested many times that the dominant political dynamic within the African National Congress (ANC) at the moment is the complicated relationship between the leader of the party, President Cyril Ramaphosa, and its Secretary-General, Ace Magashule. This is a relationship of a constant conflict whose balance of power appears to ebb and flow with the factions’ tides. Within this dynamic is also the spectre of the real possibility of criminal charges being laid against Magashule. The testimony that was heard at the Zondo Commission last week, and his response to it, may well suggest that that moment is coming closer, which would radically change the balance of power.

It is well known that our politics moves impossibly quickly. Last week, news editors would have had to make hard decisions between the unexpected death of Gavin Watson, Zandile Gumede’s decision to resign, and then rescind her resignation as Ethekwini mayor, and the flood of damaging information coming out of the Zondo Commission. In the fullness of time, it might well be that the most important information that came to light was actually that which concerns Magashule.

On the stand was the former Free State Economic Development MEC Mxolisi Dukwana. He is well known for his opposition to Magashule; he had previously explained how Magashule had taken him to Saxonwold to meet the Guptas.

But his testimony last week was more shocking, and backed up by documentary evidence.

To sum it up, Dukwana says there is email correspondence that shows that Magashule received a R10-million payment as part of a tender that saw roofs in the Free State being checked to see if they contained asbestos. The total tender was for R255-million which meant that to check 300,000 dwellings would cost R850 per house. And yet, as Dukwana explained, it appears the sum was done backwards; the starting amount was R255-million and that was then divided by R850 to arrive at the number of 300,000 houses. He also testified that this information could have been gathered by municipalities very easily, but instead this tender came from the provincial government.

It is worth recording Magashule’s response to this in full. In a brief interview recorded by the SABC he said this:

The issue of the Zondo Commission and Dukwana I think, for me, it’s not an issue. Let’s hear what Dukwana says but Dukwana has said a lot of things. He has not signed documents, he talked about a new city, and he has told the commission then that he has not signed any documents, and we have documents that he has signed, his signature is attached, and he is saying he has not taken money from anybody, and we have proof that he has taken money from people. Where have we taken money from? The man is earning, without working, without paying tax. He is taking money from people. Every month.”

While people can argue over words in statements like this, it does not appear to be a fully-fledged denial. Rather, it is the mud-throwing at the accuser, a classic whatabout? move.

There are some resonances with the kind of denial that former president Jacob Zuma has issued in the past, the demand that can be summed up as “you must tell me who have I taken money from”, put into song as “Wenzani uZuma” or roughly translated as “What has Zuma done?”

Unfortunately for Magashule, this follows earlier testimony about the Vrede Dairy project that shows exactly how bad this project was, and how much money was stolen. It also reveals, importantly, how the public protector, Advocate Busisiwe Mkhwebane, failed in her duty to investigate the issue properly (the High Court has made personal costs order against her for her failure to properly investigate this matter; she is appealing that ruling).

All of this then leads to the question, is it changing the balance of power within the ANC, is this testimony weakening Magashule and thus strengthening the hand of Ramaphosa?

It should be said here that it can be difficult to make this assessment, if only because the public posture of a politician is not necessarily how they truly feel. However, it is difficult to point to any major victories scored by Magashule in the ANC in the last few months.

The most recent apparent fight between the factions was over Derek Hanekom, and the former tourism minister’s confirmation that in 2017 he had discussed removing Zuma with the EFF. While Magashule called him a “charlatan” and a “wedge-driver” in a late-night statement, the issue was taken to the Top Six national officials. Since then, there has been no indication whatsoever that someone so described by the party’s secretary-general is facing any disciplinary action whatsoever.

On this issue Magashule obviously lost.

Of course, politics is a much more complicated game than a single defeat. Sometimes a politician, or a faction, can win simply by what they are able to stop their opponent from doing. Here there may be some evidence to show that he has scored major victories. The current hand-wringing by the commentariat at the lack of reforms being implemented by Ramaphosa suggests that the president is unable to actually do what he wants to do; that he can’t implement what he wants to implement, thanks to Magashule’s behind-the-scenes manoeuvres.

If Ramaphosa is not moving because he can’t (as opposed to if he just doesn’t want to enact those reforms), that would suggest Magashule is still powerful.

For those who have read Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s Gangster State about Magashule’s time in the Free State, very little of Dukwana’s testimony would have come as a surprise. Most of the details, particularly around the alleged R10-million payment to Magashule, were already public knowledge.

However, the detail of the testimony being broadcast to the nation must surely put more public pressure on the National Prosecuting Authority to act. On Friday, the SACP, which has strongly backed Ramaphosa, held a protest outside the NPA’s offices demanding that it start prosecutions against those named at the Zondo Commission. This is obviously their contribution to trying to change the balance of power within the ANC.

Magashule, and those around him, may now be expected to be subdued or even appear rebuked in public. This is unlikely. Rather, they are likely to redouble their efforts to weaken Ramaphosa, to put pressure on him in many different ways. It could even be that Gumede’s decision to rescind her resignation from the Ethekwini mayoralty is part of this specific fight back, because it forces Ramaphosa to act against her, and possibly use political capital in doing so.

This group could also double down by claiming easy victories. One way to do this, for example, would be for Magashule and others to disown the economic discussion document currently out for public comment from Finance Minister Tito Mboweni. They would try to tie his plan to Ramaphosa, and then shoot down the plan with the help of Cosatu and the SACP (who have strongly criticised it).

In the meantime, of course, the real question is what it has been for several months: will the NPA act on evidence from the Zondo Commission, and if so, when? While there have been repeated comments from NPA head Shamila Batohi that progress is being made in these investigations, there are some signs that public patience is running out. She may now herself start to face more pressure to act; it is entirely possible that some groups start to very publicly preparing for private prosecutions in some cases.

Only she can answer that question, and until she does, the politics of our time is likely to be dominated by doubt in Ramaphosa’s state ability to deal with corruption. DM

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