South Africa


Ace in a hole? The rumble is about to get real

ANC Secretary-General and former Free State premier Ace Magashule. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

The report arrived on Tuesday night that the Hawks were preparing to arrest Ace Magashule. It was always going to explode in the public domain like a grenade inside a half-full petrol tank.

Speculation around whether ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule would be next in the sights of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) has been rife for years. While it is difficult to predict the future, his arrest appears to be all but inevitable. What also seems clear is that the main factions in the ANC are already making their preparations. 

Tuesday night’s initial report that the Hawks had prepared an arrest warrant for Magashule was put out by IOL. The Hawks strongly denied the claim. Then IOL ran another story saying that Magashule himself had told them he was to be arrested. In the meantime, the ANC Youth League in the Free State pushed out a quick statement denouncing the reported arrest, and testifying to their ever-lasting support for Magashule. (To cut a long story short, he was a victim of White Monopoly Capital.) 

Later, on Wednesday morning, Magashule’s attorney, Victor Nkhwashu, confirmed he was trying to communicate with the Hawks and the Investigating Directorate of the NPA to ascertain if his client was due to be arrested. 

However, the real starting gun for all of this may have been the NPA’s own comments on Tuesday morning. Its spokesperson, Sipho Ngwema, had said that there would be more arrests by next week relating to corruption in the Free State. Which, considering the recent history of that province, led to most people immediately assuming he meant Magashule.

Ngwema, one of the most experienced spin doctors around, would have known that his comments would lead to this speculation. This was not a mistake. 

All of this leads to the question: if Magashule is arrested, will people in the ANC immediately stand up to back him? And if they did that, what would happen to the balance of power and President Cyril Ramaphosa? 

For many, the historical example of former president Jacob Zuma is important. 

They will point to how he was charged with corruption, and how the ANC rallied around him, how 5,000 people and top party leaders attended each of his court appearances. They will also point to how he was able to harness this dynamic to beat Thabo Mbeki at Polokwane in 2007, and to use the claim that he was a victim of a political conspiracy. 

However, the situation now is very, very different. 

First, Magashule does not have a national following and he has never had one. Zuma was already hugely popular in a way that Magashule has never been. And Magashule has not been able to use his Free State power in the national office as secretary-general to create a greater following. He is also a greatly divisive figure within the ANC – there will be no top six national officials and half the NEC attending court to support him as they did for Zuma. 

Second, Zuma had the backing of KwaZulu-Natal. The dominant size of that province in the ANC at the time made him almost unstoppable. The Free State is just not big enough in terms of branches and influence within the party. Additionally, the manner in which the ANC in KZN is slowly moving towards Ramaphosa is perhaps one of the most underreported political stories of the past few years. 

Also, Zuma had a political enemy in Mbeki, who was going for a third term as ANC leader, while having a terrible track record on both crime and HIV/AIDS. Ramaphosa has no such track record, has not been in power for nearly as long as Mbeki and is seen as a major reason the ANC was able to cling to power in the 2019 elections. 

No evidence points to any recent increase in political support for Magashule.

To go back a few months, the high point of Magashule’s political power may have been the decision by the ANC’s National Executive Committee (NEC) to reinstate two people implicated in the VBS scandal to their posts in the Limpopo branch of the party. 

But this decision led to huge outrage, with people both inside and outside the ANC slamming the party for being soft on corruption. 

That outrage grew after it emerged that certain individuals linked to the ANC had secured massive personal protective equipment (PPE) contracts. It has now been confirmed that the majority of companies that won these contracts had no track record or expertise in providing or making PPE. In some cases, even IT firms and website design companies made millions. 

He has allies in that body, some of whom may also be facing imminent arrest (there is intense speculation that former water affairs minister Nomvula Mokonyane may be about to be arrested too for her relationship with Bosasa). It would be a true example of common cause should they back him. 

Now it appears that this outrage may have been harnessed by Ramaphosa and his allies. And they would have known that this moment was coming, when people involved in Free State corruption and close collaborators of Magashule would be arrested. 

They were able to use the outrage to push through the NEC’s (in)famous “line in the sand” decision, which confirmed the earlier conference resolution that those implicated in corruption must “step aside”. 

Now Magashule is clearly expecting/fearing arrest. And he is preparing for that eventuality. 

We know this by his own comments to IOL, saying that he was going to be arrested, and by how the story emerged in the first place, in that it might well have been him or people close to him who started this story. 

Tellingly, no major elements of the ANC are publicly showing their support for him. The Radical Economic Transformation champions may write interesting press releases, but they do not speak for a big section of the ANC or of the nation. The fact that no major ANC structure, no major portion of the alliance, no body of any political significance at all has come out in support of him is a major sign of the secretary-general’s weakness. 

However, the place where Magashule may be the strongest, is the place where it may matter the most – the ANC NEC.

He has allies in that body, some of whom may also be facing imminent arrest (there is intense speculation that former water affairs minister Nomvula Mokonyane may be about to be arrested too for her relationship with Bosasa). It would be a true example of common cause should they back him. 

However, that would force the ANC to contradict its own resolution, that those implicated in corruption must step aside. 

Almost every public appearance, every interview involving an ANC representative would devolve into questions about why Magashule has not stepped down. It could be impossible for the party to communicate effectively in public in any way without dealing with this. 

Worse, because of Magashule’s role in the structure of the party, some parts of the organisation may refuse to accept his authority. And that would spell disaster for the ANC as a party (It should also be mentioned that the converse could be true: should someone try to impose a new secretary-general, other structures could well rebel against them with the same result – disaster for the party). 

But he would fight hard, with everything he has. 

In the end, what might tip the balance is witness testimony. If there is more evidence about his alleged wrongdoing, whether in court or at the Zondo Commission, that could weaken his position. It would change what politicians now call the “narrative”. But it could take some time for that dynamic to have an impact. 

It was always going to be the case that arresting the secretary-general of the ANC would lead to political sound and fury. 

The rumbling is now not so distant. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Sergio CPT says:

    Long overdue!! This Zuma no2 and his ilk are and have rotten, parasitic and cancerous grip on the anc and the nation. The sooner he goes, the sooner this country can start mending.

    • Hiram C Potts says:

      Agree, we can only live in hope. Let’s see if they have the cojones to arrest him….. if Ace goes down the rest will fall like dominoes.

      • M D Fraser says:

        I suspect the ‘domino effect’ is precisely what the ANC is trying to avoid. It seems to me that almost all of them are in it, one way or another…. mostly up to their necks in the trough.

  • Richard Brown says:

    The nation is in a state of corruption gridlock. No one dares expose another’s corruption without the risk of reciprocal exposure to his own.

  • Clive Dunbar says:

    I think we are all waiting in anticipation for the long talked about orange suits to be fitted to this criminal and his mates.

  • Andre Louw says:

    It is a miracle that this man has not been arrested prosecuted and convicted. The world is aware of his role in corruption. He and his faction at every turn oppose any hint of probity by our invertebrate president. While he continues on his merry way the NPA can only hang its head in shame. He is an embarrassment to the ANC and our country

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    More than anything else, this is an apt reminder of how a once-proud organisation like the Congres Party in India ….which over time by its own ‘mishandling’ of government, can be brought down ! AND…the worst part of that episode, is that the current incendiary and corrosive replacement of that party by a ‘fundamentalist’ group, which enjoys fanatical support of many in that country ! Is there a lesson in it somewhere for us ?

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