First published in Daily Maverick 168 newspaper and available free at these stores.
Have we exhausted the snappy “Ace” wordplay headlines yet? Probably not. After all, ANC Secretary-General Elias Sekgobelo “Ace” Magashule is the editorial gift that keeps on giving, a fount of corruption and graft that fills up column inches like no other South African politician since Jacob Zuma. He’s simultaneously clickbait and jailbait, which makes the man an irresistible draw in a country desperate to see someone — but especially Ace Magashule — do a perp walk.
This week, we were delivered a nifty (if widely telegraphed) plot twist. The former warlord of the Free State has now butted up against the rarest of unicorns: an arrest warrant issued to a member of the ANC’s Upper Management. Ace stands accused of dipping generously into a R255-million Free State contract for an asbestos audit, a classic example of bargain-basement tender fraud, the benefit of which accrued to several sleazy business associates who, among other first-class consumer items, purchased virtually every luxury car in Gauteng dealerships.
(In keeping with the Mafia theme, one of the beneficiaries, Ignatius ‘Igo’ Mpambani, has been assassinated in Sandton in front of his Bentley. Such things are, of course, standard business protocol in South Africa.)
According to the terms set by an ANC anti-corruption National Executive Committee meeting in August, which re-ratified a resolution adopted by the party at its 2017 Nasrec conference, the warrant should have been enough to trigger Ace’s immediate suspension. And yet, following a meeting of the party’s Top Six earlier this week, ANC Treasurer-General Paul Mashatile stated that the matter wasn’t even tabled for discussion, while Deputy Secretary-General Jesse Duarte insisted that “serious legal counsel” was necessary before making a determination on Ace Magashule’s future.
While this should serve as a glaring example of Ramaphosa’s figurehead status, it’s still sort of astonishing that the Top Six appeared so … sanguine. Unlike former president Jacob Zuma, Ace is a man of zero charisma and even less likability. He is gifted with no discernible skills; drenched in liabilities. And yet, he’s a cyst that everyone is too terrified to lance.
Why are they so afraid?
The answer does not lie in the smallanyana skeletons hypothesis — the argument that everyone in the ANC has something on everyone else, therefore neutralising any possible anti-corruption drive on the basis of mutual guilt. While this phenomenon is all too real, and can pitch the ANC into civil war very quickly, that’s not why Ace enjoys effective immunity.
Rather, it’s because in the political marketplace, the ANC has no competition, and faces no possible censure at the polls. All the contestation that raged five years ago?
The ANC is now an apex predator. The only threat it faces is its own rapacity, and the certainty that it will eat itself into starvation. It already is.
Let’s try to break this down. Several weeks ago, the Independent Media Group, under the sharp gaze of the Radical Economic Transformation faction’s media partner, Iqbal Survé, prematurely ejaculated a false “Ace is getting arrested” story.
The purpose of laundering this misinformation, likely arranged by Ace himself, was to test the ground for support.
Out of the shuttered Saxonwold shebeen leapt the usual bloodshot-eyed, piss-stained zombie has-beens: Carl Niehaus; “veterans” from the MKMVA; Ekurhuleni mayor Mzwandile Masina. The latter, whose Johnny Walker tweeting is perhaps the swiftest in the land, is something of a spokesperson for the RET faction’s loosey-goosey collective of grifters, crooks, assassins, liars, tax cheats,
fallen lawyers, minor Mafia dons, shop-floor flunkies, tenderpreneurs, drug dealers and dirty cops.
Created in Ace’s image — or, rather, exemplified in deed and outlook by their Free State godfather’s Standard Operating Procedures — these people are less a coherent group than they are members of roving, overlapping crime families looking for the next score. If they share an ideology, it’s that the “neoliberal” Constitution (and its human vicar on Earth, Cyril Ramaphosa) restrains the economic advancement of black Africans residing south of The Limpopo. And as with every self-serving ideology, this one is not entirely untrue. But the way the Ace-holes have gone about redressing this problem cannot be described as either pro-black or pro-poor. In practice, their unceasing thievery is as brutal and exclusionary as colonial methods of minority enrichment.
That said, there does seem to be tacit agreement that Ace is yesterday’s man. If the NPA’s case holds — a big if, considering SA’s creaking justice machinery that hasn’t been serviced for years — then Ace will extend his lengthy rent-free housing arrangement, but this time in a correctional facility, and not one of his choice. As Masina has hinted during one of his Twitter fusillades, the former head of the Alexandra Mafia, Gauteng boss Paul Mashatile, will bridge the “formal” and “informal” economic streams that empty into the fetid ANC swamp, and lead the party into the post-Ramaphosa era while maintaining ANC Mafia’s near-monopoly over corruption. In the meantime, Ace and his supporters are free to go about peddling conspiracy theories and pantomiming struggle songs outside a Mangaung courtroom, largely uncensured by a party officially desperate to shrug the mantle of corruption from its aged shoulders.
If you’re an ANC member in good standing, this is to be celebrated. Under immense pressure from factions within the organisation, along with various law enforcement agencies, opposition politicians, the media and civil society, the party’s Mafia patronage syndicate is fighting mightily to retain integrity of its operations. Ace’s shenanigans in the Free State, be it the Estina debacle, the asbestos audit or the theft of valuable artwork(s) (among many others), are not, as President Ramaphosa and other stalwarts would have you believe, aberrations.
They are examples of behaviour the modern ANC is designed to nurture and protect. Until he is thrown in prison — and, perhaps, after he leaves — Ace is as ANC as a Madiba-branded coffee mug.
How glorious it would be if the bastards were voted out, exclaims the Bryanston community WhatsApp group administrator.
Yes, but by whom? And with whom would the ANC be replaced?
What electoral miracle would be conjured by the gods in order to jettison them from their majoritarian perch?
What would a post-ANC South Africa even look like?
As things stand, there’s no way to imagine or discuss this alternative future, because it remains a complete impossibility. Barring the discovery of a multiverse in which Helen Zille isn’t radicalised into a white supremacist by Twitter bots and Podbros, and one in which the EFF doesn’t create a Chavez-level racketeering syndicate instead of a political party, the ANC is the only viable national option remaining.
(And don’t play the Blame-The-Voters game, who always act in their own perceived best interests. In this case, it’s the relative stability of social grants, capped off by nostalgia and the vastness of the ANC’s patronage networks.)
This reality was underscored by the results of this week’s super by-elections, in which the major opposition parties were held down and pummelled by schoolyard bullies including the FF+, GOOD, Plaaslike Besorgde Inwoners (uh …), and the Tsogang Civic Movement (heard of them?). In New Matjhabeng (Welkom), the council composition has returned to what it was before the DA wonder-bump during the municipal elections of 2016. Meanwhile, the EFF didn’t win a single ward, including Ward 14 (Luthuli Park Seshego) in Polokwane, where the ANC made gains on Julius Malema’s home ground.
Members of the ANC’s upper echelons, including their advisers, talk a lot about retribution at the polls, and how careful they need to be about addressing voters’ disaffection. But much like toddlers working themselves into a frenzy over monsters lurking under the bed, it’s fun to be scared of imaginary bogeymen. Three years ago the DA governed four of South Africa’s five big metros, sometimes just as poorly as the muppets they were elected to replace. They’re now down to one metro, and run on an identitarian platform catering to white people who a) don’t seem to be buying it and b) form less than 8% of the population. Their political self-immolation has been nothing short of staggering, but it is a vital factor in extending the impunity of cadres like Ace Magashule, who can now be certain that nothing they do is punishable at the polls, because there’s no alternative to their endless corrupt bullshit.
The EFF, meanwhile, is encumbered by the fact that they are supercharged crooks of the ANC variety, except without the historical coverage provided by Madiba and OR Tambo, as well as by their principled stance against the country’s now semi-official policy of anti-African xenophobia.
They at least get to play kingmaker in various metros and municipalities, and feast off the scraps of tenders handed down in exchange for their support. But their rise to power is through the ANC, where they have already been reabsorbed, an amalgamation that will be formalised once the Ramaphosa generation steps aside or dies off.
What does Ace Magashule have to fear? Nothing more than the law, and law doesn’t often win in South Africa.
And that’s less of a threat when you can martial the resources in order to defend yourself with expensive scorched earth legal tactics, à la Zuma, while reframing the charges against you as “counterrevolutionary” and “politically motivated”.
Ace Magashule is likely to stay in the ANC as long as he stays out of jail, because he is the ANC.
The euphoria over his arrest warrant, and the noise that will follow, will do nothing to change the picture on the ground: there is nothing other than the ANC, except the ANC. An endless hall of mirrors, leading back to the same thing: majoritarian rule.
Is there a fight? Sure. It’s conducted on the same old fronts: rule of law, fact-based media, civil society, action on the street.
But for real political alternatives, South Africans cannot remain so complacent.
It’s time to build genuine political alternatives to the ANC, one lonely ward at a time, one independent candidate at a time, until the green, gold and black wall starts crumbling, and the Aces are flushed out. DM168
Lawn gnomes used to be real people. The original gnome ornaments were known as Ornamental Hermits.