Dealing with Ace: How the last shred of the ANC’s legitimacy is about to step aside

By Stephen Grootes 6 December 2020
Deputy President David Mabuza. (Photo: Gallo Images / Alet Pretorius) | ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule. (Photo: Gallo Images/Frikkie Kapp)

The likely decision to not even temporarily remove Ace Magashule from his leadership position will further weaken the ANC and badly damage what is left of its authority. This is not an understatement – it is possible that for many years the ANC could have a convicted criminal as its secretary-general.

Stephen Grootes

This Monday morning the ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting that is expected to decide whether Ace Magashule will step aside as secretary-general is due to resume, after starting on Sunday evening. There are many dynamics that are swirling around this meeting, with legal opinions and WhatsApps flying about at a furious rate. While it is not possible to accurately make predictions at this stage, there are signs that the balance of power is shifting. Key to this may be the views of Deputy President David Mabuza and the ANC’s Treasurer-General, Paul Mashatile. But the probable decision to not even temporarily remove Magashule will further weaken the party and what is left of its authority.

Whether Magashule will be forced to “step aside” is one of the fundamental questions facing the ANC. If he remains as secretary-general, and is able to go through a criminal trial while still occupying this position, the ANC will be weakened in the eyes of voters during an election year.

There has been much informed reporting about a series of legal opinions in which lawyers have expressed different views about whether Magashule, or anyone in his position, can be forced to step aside. It would appear that three of these opinions say he cannot, while one says he can.

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What they do reveal is that this is not just a legal question, but first and foremost a political one.

Will Magashule face a criminal trial while secretary-general of the African National Congress? And if he were found guilty, would he remain in office while appealing? Would he cling to office until the Constitutional Court gives a final ruling? That could take years, during which time the ANC would have a convicted criminal as its secretary-general.

And what would happen if more charges are brought against him, which appears more than likely?

The ANC appears to be relying on the assumption that a person who is criminally charged will voluntarily step down. Why would someone who has done something wrong now be moved by their conscience to do something right?

Because this is mostly a political question, the internal politics of the ANC and the NEC itself are what will determine the answer. It is likely that key to what happens will be the positions taken by Mabuza and Mashatile.

In the months after Mabuza and Mashatile were elected to the top six at Nasrec it appeared that they supported President Cyril Ramaphosa. They helped him to stand up to Jacob Zuma and must have been involved in the NEC decision in 2018 that led to Zuma resigning from office.

There was also some evidence that Mabuza opposed Magashule. In March 2018 he used Parliament to publicly criticise Magashule for spending R20-million on a “farewell party” when he resigned as premier of the Free State to take up the ANC job.

But in City Press on Sunday it was suggested that Mabuza and Mashatile would back Magashule.

This should not come as a surprise, as it is in their own interests.

Mabuza faces possible legal problems of his own. A new book reveals the role he is alleged to have played in forcing a Mpumalanga landowner to give up his property. This issue is the subject of court action that could well put Mabuza in a difficult position.

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And of course, he faces claims first published in The New York Times about widespread corruption in Mpumalanga when he was still the premier there. (He has responded to that article). 

Mabuza is well aware that should something bad happen to Magashule it would set a painful precedent that might end up biting him too.

The same may apply to Mashatile. There were many claims, made over a decade ago, about what was called the “Alex Mafia”, of which he was accused of being an important part. Last year he had to defend himself against these claims again, during a hearing of the SA Human Rights Commission.

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And they will be very aware that Ramaphosa is the only person with the legal authority, as president, to remove a National Director of Public Prosecutions, who would make the ultimate decision as to whether or not criminal charges would be instituted against them.

Of course, these are just a few people in an NEC made up of 86 members. Under the ANC’s procedures an NEC decision is made “by consensus”. This means this decision about Magashule is not made by a simple vote, but by some form of agreement by all.

It seems unlikely that the NEC will reach consensus on a decision as important as this, with so many ramifications for the party and with so many factions at play.

This would have long-term implications for the NEC.

Just three months ago this same group of people decided, in a very public fashion, that those who are implicated in corruption must step aside. Now it may be that at the first test of this they will simply ignore their own decision.

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In effect, if the NEC does not remove Magashule from his position, they are saying that their earlier decision was a nonsense. And if that is the case, does this NEC have any legitimacy whatsoever?

This would strengthen what is really the dominant dynamic in the ANC at the moment, the weakening of central political authority.

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It would appear that the safest prediction to make is that whatever happens the ANC is going to be left weak, disoriented and ideology-free. And with the DA going through its own implosion, the South African political scene might be entering a new, dangerous phase that leaves our representative democracy suffering badly. DM


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All Comments 26

  • The fall of the ANC is one of the greatest tragedies of our time. It’ll take courage and hard work for this once proud beacon of human rights to rise again. State Capture like Apartheid is the prison its beneficiaries built for themselves. It is as Kenneth Kaunda said about Apartheid too ghastly to contemplate if we do not bring down the walls of the prison we may call State Capture.

      • A quick search on google confirm that you are indeed correct that John Vorster made the comment referring to the political stalemate in what was known as Rhodesia. Kaunda would later use Vorster’s wisdom to comment on the stalemate in his own country, South Africa. Our current Chief Justice has another way of saying the same thing: peace without justice is not sustainable in the long run! Thank you Jon for correcting me!

  • I believe that as long predicted South Africa has truly reached that watershed moment in the path to its political future. The ANC already weak and ineffective will struggle on like a wounded dinosaur leaving a huge power vacuum. Step up the populist faction and the grim spectre of master grasper Julius Malema.

  • The closing sentence had me googling for appropriate quotes about pessimism, and the following summed up my sense: “We pessimists have everything to gain, whereas optimists have a fifty-fifty chance of being disappointed.”

    Yes, indeed, the SA scene might indeed be entering a new dangerous phase, but SA may equally well be entering a new creative phase. All sorts of good things can happen because of the internal ANC and DA tensions. Maybe there will be a realignments or coalitions that benefit the country. Who knows? Pessimism should not be conflated with insight and cautious optimism should not be seen as naïvety.

    • The problem with pessimism is that it is often a self-fulfilling prophecy….on the other hand low expectations ensure high reward!

      • Pessimism and optimism are human philosophical concepts, they play no part in the true life drama of political reality. If history teaches us anything it is that humankind is eminently capable of repeating the same mistakes.

  • Unfortunately, I do not see a weakening of the ANC due to the factional fighting,as evidenced by the recent by-election results. Whilst many of us may wish to think that it is the case, the voters in many areas do not seem to be reflecting it. I seriously do not understand why. Service delivery of all forms stolen from them and they persist in re-electing ANC councillors and then protesting and destroying infrastructure because of not getting services!! Madness.

    • This highlights what, to me, is the flaw in what we democratically console ourselves with.
      “Democracy” can’t function if the voters will not or cannot intelligently discern which political party best suits their requirements or needs.
      In UK the choice is Labour or Conservative and is far too often made because “we’ve always voted . . . . ”
      Ditto America where dyed-in-the-wool Democrats and Republicans would NEVER vote the other way.
      Here in South Africa it’s an even worse problem because the electorate votes on racial grounds – come what may!
      The only answer, in my opinion, is a qualified franchise where voters can be expected to make considered choices.

      • Surely the only enduring solution is the emergence of a new political force which can act to address the problems faced by the current political community? This does not necessarily involve populism but must offer a generally acceptable plan which addresses the needs of the majority of citizens.
        The ANC plays on its liberation period for support simply because it is incapable of governing effectively!
        The DA has spent so much time in opposition it does not seem able to do anything but criticise the ANC (although Steenhuisen seems to really trying to).
        Some cross cultural grouping must be able to fill the gap?
        The EFF, in this respect has already shown itself to be incapable/unwilling?

  • In this case I reserve the majority of my scorn for the DA. Surely they should be expected to put country before party not to mention grabbing a golden opportunity to take advantage of the chaos in the ANC. As for the ANC, their failure to deal with a bunch of blatant criminals could spell the death knell of democracy in SA. Once they become entrenched, then we end up like basket case Zimbabwe with an evil clique holding power through the barrels of guns! If our President was to do something dramatic like a Nationwide address on TV announcing a crackdown on these thugs I am sure he would have the support of 90% plus of the population. We really ARE at the crossroads now.

  • It is interesting that the various factions of the ANC are seeking legal opinions regarding whether the internal ANC resolution can be enforced. This is not a legal matter but one of morality, ethics and integrity. The resolution was that members charged would VOLUNTARILY step down until either convicted or acquitted. The NEC of the ANC appears to be having difficulty distinguishing between compliance with the law, which is a minimum standard, and ethical behaviour, which is what their original decision was all about. Unfortunately, ethical leadership appears to be a rare commodity within the ANC, if in fact anyone even understands the concept.

    • Hey Peter, you have hit the nail right on the head ! Morality ? Ethics ? Integrity ? None of these is in the ANC handbook. In fact I doubt they could even look them up in a dictionary to see what they mean 🙁

    • I’m afraid I agree. When we talk of people supporting Magashule or any of the others charged it only means they are supporting themselves. In fact we could save a lot of investigations because so called supporters are self identifying as criminals.

  • The solution to the national problem is to back the DA. It has gone thru’ an “implosion” only because of journalists like Stephen Grootes says it is an implosion. All parties go thru’ corrections and ups and downs. We are looking at the future of SA, not just some small thing. Support the democratic centre.

  • What a rotten to the core bunch that we have in charge of this country and no wonder that it is in such a mess! The impunity, arrogance and sense of entitlement is staggering. One can only hope that the NPA have their ducks in a row and act decisively with these thieves, hyenas and charlatans masquerading as caring/serving the people and the country! SA cannot afford this putrid new anc and we need to vote DA, Action SA etc. in order to finally kick these evil monsters out. They are a cancer that is poisoning this country!

  • The reason why the ANC is taking no action is simple. To some extent every one of the hierarchy is either guilty of corruption or of covering it up both in and outside of parliament so the ANC internecine battles are being fought via the NPA and Parliament.
    So, no need for screeds of analyses.
    As pointed out by a senior ANC member Bathabile Dlamini in parliament years ago,”All of us there in the NEC have our smallanyana skeletons. And we don’t want to take out all skeletons because hell will break loose.”
    Am I the only one who still takes note of the significance of that admission?

    • Bathabile is an expert in whataboutism – someone else’s guilt does not detract from their own guilt! We should not fall for this trick by regarding the entire ANC as corrupt…

  • To me a great deal depends on what media (Printed, TV, Electronic and Social) that people are reading.
    Each give out different messages, but it is noted that the SABC is that only one that apparently reaches all the race groups.


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