Analysis

ANC’s Mzwandile Masina-sized splitting headache

By Stephen Grootes 2 June 2020
Caption
Ekurhuleni mayor Mzwandile Masina. (Photo: Gallo Images/OJ Koloti) / President Cyril Ramaphosa (Photo: Gallo Images / Rapport / Deon Raath) /

All eyes are on the ANC leadership to see what, if any, action will be taken against Ekurhuleni Mayor Mzwandile Masina for breaking ranks on Twitter and taunting the party to fire him.

On Monday night, the ANC rebuked Ekurhuleni Mayor Mzwandile Masina over his support for Julius Malema and his position that the “white economy should be allowed to collapse”. The rebuke prompted Masina to claim, again on Twitter, that he was ready to be removed from his position, after which he deleted his account.

These developments appear to show just how high emotions are running in some parts of the party, bubbling up to the surface through fights around economic policy, and the different factions that are vying for power. At the same time, this may be an important test for whether the ANC can actually function while having weakened central authority, and whether it even has the ability to exert control over its deployees and members.

The events of Monday night happened swiftly and almost entirely online.

First, the ANC released a statement on its media WhatsApp groups publicly rebuking its mayor of Ekurhuleni:

ANC STATEMENT ON SOCIAL MEDIA POLICY TRANSGRESSIONS

The African National Congress appeals to its members and leadership to be cautious on what gets communicated in the social media. The ANC has always guided its members to limit their public pronouncements to approved policies as there are internal platforms of discourse for engagement on policy positions that have not been approved. The recent post by the Regional Chairperson of the ANC in Ekurhuleni, Comrade Mzwandile Masina, on nationalisation of the economy falls outside the confines of our policy position.

While the views were expressed on a personal account, it stands to confuse our constituency and members as to what the ANC stands for. It is expected of ANC leaders to act with care and be cautious at all times on matters of policy. Leaders of the ANC feed into the narrative of policy uncertainty when they publicly canvas positions outside the formal structures. We therefore encourage members of the ANC to exercise their freedom of speech within the confines of ANC structures.

Masina had tweeted on Sunday morning that he agreed with EFF leader Julius Malema’s claim that the “white economy” must be suffocated through the Covid-19 pandemic, and that the commanding heights of the economy should be nationalised. This led to commentary of how it once again appeared that the party was losing central authority, it could not control its own office-bearers, never mind its rank-and-file:

Nationalise, Command, Let the ‘White Economy’ Collapse: Where Malema leads, ANC’s Mzwandile Masina will follow

Then, moments after the ANC’s statement was released, Masina tweeted his reaction to the rebuke, saying that he was not a coward, and could be removed “tomorrow as Mayor”. He appeared to challenge the ANC to remove him from the position as his “views are more important then being gag by whites (sic)”.

He followed that up with a second tweet in which he said, “Come @Our_DA take me with, I careless [sic] I’m not a coward.”

Then the account – Masina’s entire Twitter account – disappeared.

Malema, the man Masina calls his friend, then claimed that Twitter had deleted the account.

Twitter, of course, would have done no such thing, and it seems more likely that Masina realised how much trouble he would now be in with Luthuli House, and deleted it himself.

There is much to ponder here.

The first question to ask is, why would the ANC publicly rebuke him the way it did in the first place?

Many ANC members have tweeted in the past, and some of it has been offensive to various people or the party’s leadership. However, Masina’s offending tweet probably crossed the line in an important way. It was not just that he tweeted his support for “radical views” which are not official ANC policy. It was also that he was publicly demonstrating his support for Malema, the leader of a rival party.

In most political parties in democracies, it’s unacceptable to publicly show support for the leader of another party, and especially to claim that their policies are better than the policies of your own party.

It may also be that Luthuli House realised how recent events had given the impression they were losing control, and that this could end up looking like a complete collapse of central authority in the party. The test of this will be whether action is taken against other ANC deployees who have done similar things in the past. The first candidate is possibly the party’s Nelson Mandela Bay leader Andile Lungisa, but even national executive committee member Tony Yengeni has crossed the political Twitter line in the past. Carl Niehaus, too, tweeted his support for Masina on Monday.

It may be that an example had to be made. It will be interesting to see if either of them or anyone else continues to tweet as they did before this action was taken.

The second test is whether Masina will face any disciplinary action, either for the first tweet on Sunday (the support for Malema tweet) or for his Monday night tweets.

It is hard to imagine the mayor of a major Metro challenging his party to remove him, of saying that he was happy to go into politics with another party (in this case his reference to the DA) after also saying that he agreed with the policies of yet a third party, and still not suffering any consequences. If he had said this at a public meeting and then withdrawn it, surely some sanction would follow. Tweeting it and then deleting the tweets and his account must amount to the same thing.

And if the ANC does not act against one of its own who challenges it in this way, then when would it act?

Masina has been a long-time supporter of what is often called the “RET faction” in the ANC – the grouping of those who support people like former President Jacob Zuma and secretary-general Ace Magashule. However, two weeks ago he tweeted what appeared to be criticism of Zuma and his YouTube video series created on Zoom with his son Duzuzane. Masina said it was bad taste for Jacob Zuma to be doing this during the pandemic.

Twitter has seen the end of many careers – people in the media, business and other sectors have paid a heavy price for comments made in the heat of the moment on social media.

At the same time, it should not be forgotten that Masina is the leader of a caucus. He is the elected leader of the Ekurhuleni region of the ANC. This gives him a constituency and, through that, a certain amount of protection.

It will be interesting to see if anyone comes to his aid, as he is not alone in his beliefs within the party. But if no one supports him, it may indicate that the balance of power has shifted. Supporters of President Cyril Ramaphosa will hope that this is a sign that “his ANC” is now in the ascendency, and that he is cementing his power in the party.

The ANC’s Monday night statement was presumably sanctioned by Magashule (as secretary-general with constitutional power over the party’s media releases). It may not have been easy for him to do this, which suggests that he and other leaders took Masina’s comments very seriously indeed.

While Masina may try to argue that he is being censored for his views, and that he has a right to tweet what he likes, he may have an additional problem there. As mayor, he oversaw the sacking of his speechwriter for breaking the Ekurhuleni metro’s social media policy. Malaika Mahlatsi lost her job after posting an audio clip about the metro’s pay policy. Masina’s office also had to deny claims that she was the one writing his PhD thesis. Could she lose her job while he keeps his?

It is possible that there will be some in the ANC who believe that Masina should be removed from his position. Certainly, he would appear to have nowhere else to go (unless the EFF wins control of the council next year). However, that would be very complicated. The ANC governs Ekurhuleni through a coalition with the African Independent Congress (AIC). The AIC was formed by the community of Matatiele to campaign to move the town from the Eastern Cape to KwaZulu-Natal (or more accurately, move the provincial boundary around it). To remove Masina would require a new vote for mayor, and there is no certainty that the AIC would not make new demands or try to force action on Matatiele.

Twitter has seen the end of many careers – people in the media, business and other sectors have paid a heavy price for comments made in the heat of the moment on social media. At the same time, it has been one of the trickiest issues for the ANC to confront, as many of its leaders and deployees have said things on Twitter that they might not say on any other platform (@TitoMboweni is one good example, but there are plenty of others). 

This is a chance for the ANC to finally attempt to tame the Twitter beast. And in the process, bring back some form of central political authority. DM

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