South Africa


Ace Magashule’s potential arrest opens up new avenues for ANC’s future leadership battles

African National Congress (ANC) Secretary General Ace Magashule during a media briefing on September 11, 2018 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Alon Skuy)

It is clear that the internal dynamics within the ANC around corruption and potential arrests are now moving closer to what soon may turn into a dramatic development.

While there are many who are focusing on what this means for those implicated in alleged corruption, it is also true that any arrests will have strong political consequences. There is much “chatter” about possible moves against the current leadership of the ANC, and already there have been several indications people are preparing for the 2022 ANC elective conference. But perhaps the most important consequence of any arrests is that they will probably strengthen the current ANC leader, President Cyril Ramaphosa.

The weekend revealed more evidence of ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule’s growing concern about his possible arrest. In City Press on Sunday, there was confirmation that his attorney, Victor Nkhwashu, has communicated with the Hawks and the National Prosecuting Authority, asking for any confirmation as to whether his client is going to be arrested.

In particular, it appears that Magashule is concerned about the spectre of a “Hollywood-style” arrest, where he would be taken into custody in full glare of the television cameras.

It is not clear why this aspect is of such a political concern for the ANC secretary-general. The headlines “Ace Magashule arrested” would have immense political power all of their own. While the human desire to avoid humiliation is completely understandable, it would not appear to make much difference politically how the arrest is conducted.

But it is clear that Magashule is well aware of the political consequences this would have. There can be no other explanation as to why the vanishingly small group of people held a protest outside Luthuli House last  week: it is clear that his supporters feel the need to show that he is not alone.

Still, and contrary to their apparent intentions, he does look almost totally isolated and without support.

It is worth repeating that despite all of the public discussion on this, no structure of the ANC outside of the MKMVA, as well as the Free State and Vhembe district youth league representatives, has come out in his support. The MKMVA’s leadership is thoroughly discredited (Carl Niehaus is a liar and a fraud, its treasurer Des van Rooyen has failed to explain his decisions as finance minister in 2015, its leader Kebby Maphatsoe has consistently supported former president Jacob Zuma and the Guptas).

It is extraordinary that structures led by people who support Magashule have not publicly followed their leaders and said they support him. The Ekurhuleni Mayor Mzwandile Masina has tweeted his support for Magashule, but the ANC region that he leads has not followed suit.

Meanwhile, the other symbol of corruption in our society, former president Jacob Zuma, is on the back foot all on his own. He now has to resort to more legal manoeuvring to avoid having to give testimony under oath at the Zondo Commission. The commission’s evidence leader, Paul Pretorius, says that there is evidence from 34 witnesses that implicates Zuma, to which he needs to respond.

It is now obvious that the former president too may be feeling the first signs of panic.

Then, again over the last few days, there were more indications of waves being made towards campaigning for the 2022 ANC leadership battle. First there was a report that Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula might be considering running for the position of ANC Chair.

Then the Sunday Times carried an interview with ANC treasurer Paul Mashatile, in which he was asked if he would consider running for the position of ANC leader in 2022. He is widely believed to be working closely with Deputy President David Mabuza (who has been almost absent from public politics this year) amid enduring claims of a pact between them. Mashatile says he is fully behind the leadership of Ramaphosa, and wouldn’t discuss his future ambitions.

At the same time, there is intense speculation, and expectation, that the expected arrest of Magashule will lead to huge pushback against Ramaphosa, and thus strengthen those who would campaign against him.

If someone were to move against Ramaphosa, either at a national general council (currently scheduled for 2021) or at the next conference in 2022, the party could suffer a massive pushback from the public.

However, all of this misses what may be the most important consequence of Magashule’s possible arrest: Ramaphosa is strengthened in an important way.

Should Magashule be arrested, the argument within the ANC is entirely likely to focus only on whether he should resign from his position as secretary-general. It would be him under pressure, not Ramaphosa.

At the same time, the public support for Ramaphosa would only grow. As has been written elsewhere, Magashule is generally seen by the public as corrupt, and in some quarters he has become a bogeyman, a symbol of everything that is wrong with the ANC.

Were he to be removed, or even just arrested, it would represent a blaring sign that Ramaphosa’s reform promises are being kept, even if they materialise later than expected. While Ramaphosa as head of state is keeping a distance from all issues NPA that he believes must act independently, he would still reap a massive political reward. It is almost certain that he would become more popular with the public which, in the past, has displayed frustration with Ramaphosa, believing he has not acted forcefully enough against corruption.

Were his popularity to improve, it would become even harder for his opponents within the party to move against him, no matter which grouping or faction wanted to have their person replace him. The ANC is now in a zone where election victories are no longer guaranteed and their action on fighting South Africa’s most popular leader could be badly punished at the polls.

If someone were to move against Ramaphosa, either at a national general council (currently scheduled for 2021) or at the next conference in 2022, the party could suffer a massive pushback from the public. It is true that the DA has become substantially weaker, and that the EFF leadership may soon have legal problems of its own. Still, all opposition parties would benefit from Ramaphosa not being the leader of the ANC.

There is also the small issue of few people in the party who have the ability to display an image of probity.

Mabuza had a reputation of being corrupt before he became deputy president (he received medical treatment in Russia after being flown there on a jet controlled by the Gupta family), while Mashatile has long-running claims about him relating to what was called the “Alex Mafia”. However, it is entirely possible that they are trying to carve a path for another leader they know very well, the current Gauteng Premier David Makhura.

This might explain why Makhura is so intent on dealing carefully with the corruption claims against Bandile Masuku. Makhura fired him on Friday after an SIU report claimed he was partially responsible for the alleged procurement corruption there. Strangely though, Makhura has refused to appoint a replacement, saying he would like to reappoint Masuku should a final SIU process clear him.

This suggests Makhura both believes Masuku is innocent, and knows he has to be seen to be acting against corruption in the province. The ANC is in a state where making predictions two years ahead of time is dangerous. However, the dynamics that are in place now, the possible arrest of Magashule (and others…) and the public outrage against corruption still point to Ramaphosa retaining his ANC position in 2022.

It may be that in fact his position continues to strengthen through this period. While Magashule, Zuma and other assorted heavies have to spend all of their energy on staying out of jail. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Hendrik Mentz says:

    Thought provoking analysis as per usual, Mr Grootes. Pieter-Louis Myburgh (‘Gangster State’) must surely take some credit that down the road, it is Magashule and not Mabuza who is the focus despite the latter having been the subject of a NYT exposé, thus illustrating the power of looking closely, the written word, and sustained attention. Kudos also to Penguin (who published Myburgh) and the Daily Maverick (Scorpio).

  • Chris Green says:

    A Luta Continua !! , So, Stephen, as usual another well written thoughtfilled article. I wonder when we may find out out how much Jessie Duarte claims to not know in the position she has held since 2012. Crucial years alongside 5 others who in one or other way have hit the front pages for the wrong reasons. Time to dig a little into the role which “little tweety bird” may be playing – she flies well under the radar.

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    Great article. One thing I miss from the learned journalists is … Do they believe in a strong democratic opposition? That would make the anti-corruption faction much more powerful and effective.

  • Mike Abelheim says:

    I plan on living another 30 years. I would like to see the efficiency and speed of this process come to finality, where descent honest persons hold high positions, with effective checks and balances.
    I and probably more than a majority of the voting public want to see real and quick justice .

  • charles irons says:

    Here’s expecting that Ramaphosa gets stronger support:
    It may be that in fact his position continues to strengthen through this period.
    While Magashule, Zuma and other assorted heavies have to spend all of their energy on staying out of jail.

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