South Africa

ANALYSIS

Just how powerful (really) is Ace Magashule?

President Cyril Ramaphosa, left, ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule, centre, and former president Jacob Zuma, right. (Illustrative image | sources: Gallo Images / Business Day / Freddy Mavunda | Tiso Blackstar Group / Alon Skuy | Gallo Images / Tiso Blackstar Group / Thulani Mbele)

One man seems to be in the centre of all the ANC’s internal power struggles: Ace Magashule, the party’s secretary-general. It’s a pivotal position, and while he holds significant political power, there are limits to it. The true measure of that power could be critical for the future of the ANC and South Africa.

There can be no doubt that ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule has become, for some, the very symbol of the problems we face. Apart from government corruption, he is also blamed for the lack of progress towards reform and the wider problems in our society. To many, his main crime has been to frustrate the aims of President Cyril Ramaphosa.

This is compounded by his constant refrain that there is nothing wrong, nothing illegal, with family members winning Covid-19 procurement contracts when their parents and siblings are ANC leaders. This includes his two sons, who both won contracts from the Free State provincial government despite having no track-record in providing PPE. And he is wrong on the law.

Ace Magashule claims nothing in law stops politicians’ families from doing business with government: Not so fast, SG

At the weekend News24 reported that one of his sons, Tshepiso Magashule, bought a new BMW X7 worth over R2.5-million last week. It is this kind of brazen behaviour that has driven some ANC members, including elders and people like former ANC deputy secretary-general Cheryl Carolus, to express their profound disbelief over a lack of ethics, morals and shame.

Magashule would probably not engage in such provocative posturing if he did not think that it is:

a) Right to do; and

b) Nothing will happen to him anyway.

On the evidence presented thus far, it will not be easy to stop or restrain him.

History shows the position of the secretary-general in the ANC is of crucial importance, and the relationship between that office-bearer and the party president is vital. When the relationship between Kgalema Motlanthe as secretary-general and the then-president, Thabo Mbeki, broke down, Jacob Zuma ascended to power at Polokwane. The same dynamic repeated itself with Gwede Mantashe and Zuma. When Mantashe was defending Nkandla, Zuma was safe. When Zuma went too far and fired Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister, Mantashe moved against him.

The latest manifestation of Magashule’s power has been the National Executive Committee’s decision to reinstate Florence Radzilani and Danny Msiza – both linked to VBS looting – to their positions within the party in Limpopo. Ramaphosa opposed this and leaks have emerged that he told the NEC at that meeting that care had to be taken about how this was perceived, because of the thousands of poor people who lost money after the VBS bank collapsed.

The ANC chair, Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe, also let it be known that he opposed the decision, stating in a TV interview that if Magashule had said they were to be reinstated immediately it was “a personal view”. His point was that while the NEC had taken the decision to reinstate them, the process had to involve the ANC in Limpopo and that those processes had not yet been completed.

All of this appears to show that Magashule does have very significant intra-NEC power. Winning in the case of Radzilani and Msiza, when everyone in the room knew how much criticism the ANC would face, points both to Magashule’s power and a great level of insularity, perhaps bordering on recklessness.

This resonates with what happened many times during the Zuma years.

There was widespread public anger against Zuma and at one point his approval ratings dropped below 20%. Despite that, the NEC did not vote to remove him from power as president until after the ANC’s 2017 conference at Nasrec. Once again we have the situation where the NEC is able to make hugely unpopular decisions.

There are limits to how long this situation can last. The share of the vote won by the ANC is slowly decreasing, and as it gets closer to the 50% mark, the NEC may well have to change tack. (Of course, that also depends on what forces are against the ruling party.)

But what is truly fascinating is the relatively small number of people who are prepared to speak in defence of Magashule.

During this latest series of comments and outrage about the alleged Covid-19 procurement corruption, only the ANC in Mangaung itself has spoken in his defence. Its regional chair, Mxolisi Siyonzana, said it was wrong for Magashule’s sons to be “discriminated against”.

When Magashule came under fire after the publication of Daily Maverick writer Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s book, Gangster State, it was again a local organisation that came to his defence – the ANC Youth League in the Free State, that went postal and threatened to burn copies of the book.

This is important because it is only the provincial bodies in the Free State ANC, and not even the leadership of the Free State ANC itself, that are coming out in support of Magashule. So far, not one structure in another province has voiced its support of the party’s secretary-general, suggesting that Magashule can only count on the support from his home turf – and even in Free State there was not a united, provincial, chest-beating, desk-pounding show of anger and indignation.

It appears that, similar to Deputy President David Mabuza, Magashule has not been able to translate the support from a province into nationwide backing. His power brief relies on alliances with other leaders and their national spokespersons, rather than on organic support from party members across the country.

…But there is an important difference. Zuma had tight control of the NPA and the Hawks. Magashule does not have that control, at least not overtly. Both the Hawks and the NPA now appear to be run by independent people. Should evidence emerge that could result in a criminal conviction, Magashule would struggle to prevent those charges from being lodged against him.

In most democracies, the level of support political leaders enjoy from the public is important. This is especially true when leaders symbolise their parties. Various polls have found that Ramaphosa has an approval rating above 60%, while Magashule is much less popular.

This reveals the triumph of control over structure – as long as the NEC is with Magashule he seems free to act.

However, the real test may happen soon in the shape of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) or the Hawks taking public action against one of the most powerful men in South Africa.

The Zondo Commission recently heard more testimony about the Vrede Dairy project, and about the supposed “asbestos removal project”. They both took place while Magashule was premier of Free State. The recent change to the regulations around the Zondo Commission allows the commission’s investigators to work with the NPA. This has been described by the head of the Investigative Directorate at the NPA, Hermione Cronje, as a “game changer”.

Should Magashule be formally charged with crimes (and there is no indication when or if that will happen) his power would be tested. He would argue that he could not be removed from his position because he is innocent until proven guilty. But he has also said that the reason the NEC reinstated Radzilani and Msiza is that they had not been formally charged by the NPA. It would now be hard for him to argue that he cannot be removed if he is charged.

This also resonates with the Zuma era. As others have noted, Magashule appears to be filling the role of the symbol of alleged ANC corruption that Zuma did for the middle classes for so many years.

But there is an important difference. Zuma had tight control of the NPA and the Hawks. Magashule does not have that control, at least not overtly. Both the Hawks and the NPA now appear to be run by independent people. Should evidence emerge that could result in a criminal conviction, Magashule would struggle to prevent those charges from being lodged against him.

And that, of course, would change the game.

While some in the NEC would publicly support him, it appears that only a few would say in public that he should remain in his position. Certainly, Ramaphosa would be unlikely to do anything to help him (even if he could).

This again points to the relationship between the leader of the ANC and its secretary-general. In the past, the secretary-general has been able to weaken the president. It may turn out that the opposite is also true. DM

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