First published as the front-page story in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
If you’re the gambling type, where do you place your bets?
On President Cyril Ramaphosa, the staid, plodding, committee-obsessed, consensus-forward technocrat? On the legal system, bound as it is by the constraints imposed by rule of law and mauled by the Years of Zuma? Or on Ace Magashule, former warlord of the Free State, current secretary-general of the ANC, de facto leader of the Radical Economic Transformation (RET) movement, and a man with a current tally of 21 charges of corruption and fraud hanging over his head?
As the roulette wheel spins into oblivion, the outcome will be determined by the following zero-sum logic: if Ace loses, he and his supporters will be locked out of patronage networks, their families disgraced and likely impoverished, their links to the ANC’s power brokers severed. Ace himself, and many more, will serve a considerable sentence, and will be too old to emerge from prison as a warrior waging righteous warfare against White Monopoly Capital.
If Ace loses, he loses everything.
But what happens if Ace wins?
Well, if he wins, and if he’s able to wrest control of the ANC from Ramaphosa’s disparate and harried faction, he wins it all.
Mainstream media practitioners and high-end commentators are mostly unwilling to consider such an outcome. It’s hard to blame them. But over the course of the past several weeks, beginning with former president Jacob Zuma’s nose-thumbing at his constitutional obligation to appear before the Zondo Commission, the forces against the Ramaphosa presidency have 3D printed themselves into a remarkably coherent mob. The Economic Freedom Fighters’ Julius Malema, who moonlights as kingmaker within the ANC, paid a visit of support to Zuma at his Nkandla residence, travelling by helicopter to engage in the sort of DF Malanesque bosberaad that most South Africans probably thought went out of fashion with apartheid.
We now know, without question, that the Radical Economic Transformers have assembled an expeditious bloc of slavering loot-monsters. And that their surest passage to survival/victory depends on the secretary-general taking up residence in Mahlamba Ndlopfu.
They’re so close they can taste the breath mints in the presidential courtesy bowl.
So how would Magashule pull off his RET coup?
The first obstacle Ace must contend with is the party itself – in particular, the desperation of its centrist stalwarts to govern like corruption-free Swedes. You’re going to laugh when you read this, but the ANC’s constitution devotes considerable real estate to the discipline of wayward members. That said, the constitution’s framers were steeped in Soviet folklore, and really just wanted to avoid any Trotskyite schisms that could inflict damage on revolutionary “unity”.
As for criminal behaviour – a very real issue within the party, you might have heard – no self-respecting organisation ever believes that it will have to contend with such unpleasantness, and therefore makes few provisions for successfully resolving them. That said, the ANC constitution’s Rule 25.70 is worth quoting in full:
“Where a public representative, office-bearer or member has been indicted to appear in a court of law on any charge, the Secretary General or Provincial Secretary, acting on the authority of the NEC, the NWC, the PEC or the PWC, if satisfied that the temporary suspension of such public representative, office-bearer or member would be in the best interest of the Organisation, may suspend such public representative, elected office-bearer or member and impose terms and conditions to regulate their participation and conduct during the suspension.”
Seems clear. But what if the indicted office-bearer happens to be the very same secretary-general under whose authority Rule 25.70 must be implemented?
But the 2017 National Conference, held at Nasrec in Johannesburg, attempted to address just such a loophole. There, delegates re-ratified Rule 25.70, and resolved that comrades tainted by criminal allegations must “step down”. No stepping down has occurred in the wake of the conference, and last year during a special corruption-focused National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting, the party’s elite endorsed the resolution once more: the tainted comrades must relinquish their membership and duties until the matter churns its way through the courts. Additionally, they endorsed the role of the ANC’s Integrity Commission, where behaviour is judged not in terms of guilt or innocence, but by the yardstick of “bringing the ANC into disrepute”.
The Integrity Commission has of course ruled on Ace’s situation – it determined that he should step aside. Which means that Ace has made a running joke of the ANC constitution, the Nasrec National Conference resolutions, and the Integrity Commission. That should give you a pretty good sense of where power resides in the party. (The NEC, the ANC’s authority between National Conferences, has not yet roused itself to discuss the matter, which might change when they meet this weekend.)
Ace’s next step is to exploit a flaw in South Africa’s Big Party electoral system.
In practice, the composition of the country’s top leadership is determined not by voters – the ANC has won five successive national majorities because of its strong brand and perennially weak opposition – but by the 80 or so ANC members who comprise the National Executive Committee.
These members are not compelled to consult with their constituents, they do not show their hands when they make their choices, and their individual preferences will never be recorded for posterity. Instead, they reach what is termed “general consensus”, a quorum that cannot be measured in conventional terms, but instead employs a proprietary ANC-branded political dipstick to reach decisions based on little more than the self-interest of the strongest individuals among them.
SA’s next president?
This is complete insanity, and it belies any contention that South Africa is a modern, functional technocratic state. The truth is that the fate of the country is not determined by Parliament, nor the ballot box – it is decided by ANC’s elite and the factions that back them.
The instruction manual is simple: control the NEC, control the ANC, control the country.
How might Magashule tip the balance within the NEC, effectively wresting from Ramaphosa the ever-so-slight majority that has allowed the current status quo to remain intact since the Nasrec conference?
This is no easy task, but it is far from impossible. As a rule, the NEC tends to protect positions determined at the National Conference, a Mutually Assured Destruction-type survival mechanism that results in a measure of stability.
But, as far as rules go, it’s not ironclad. If Ramaphosa was once popular with the ANC rank and file and with average South Africans, Covid-19 has done him no favours in this regard, though he remains by far the most popular politician in the country. His 2017 presidency win was purchased with the help of steroidal injections of cash from the white Sandtontariat and Mandela/Mbeki-era black ANC business elite. Ramaphosa, however, doesn’t wield as much power where it counts: in the branch-level delegate voting blocs that decide on delegate spots and ultimately the NEC and Top Six leadership positions at the National Conference.
Despite the equally immense amount of money wielded by Zuma and the RET faction in 2017, Ramaphosa was able to outmanoeuvre them in order to secure the balance of delegate power (allegedly by bringing onside DD Mabuza and his Mpumalanga branches).
This strategy is unlikely to work a second time, because Ace has been vigorously adding to the ANC’s membership ranks across the country. When Zuma famously botched reading out the ANC membership numbers in 2015 — “seven hundred and sixty-nine eight hundred and … seven hundred” — membership stood at around three-quarters of a million, down from the full million they blared about at the Centennial 2012 Mangaung conference.
It now stands at almost double the 2015 number, at 1.4-million; it has grown almost 25% since Ace took the helm. ANC insiders say that as secretary-general he has been relentlessly focused on stuffing the rolls with members whose loyalty, tied intimately to future opportunities for patronage, lie with him personally.
So what are Ace’s next moves?
As Ramaphosa stays distracted by the small matter of governing the country during a once-in-a-century public health crisis, the secretary-general is free to focus on the run-up to the National General Council (NGC), which will occur later this year, either before municipal elections or after. The NGC is basically a bar mitzvah and a wedding rolled into one, and serves as the midpoint in the congress’s electoral cycle. It’s here that delegates can be whipped by party leaders into influencing the currents of power, and swamping the agenda with pantomimed anger. (This is where, in 2005, Mbeki’s play at a third term was kneecapped by Zuma’s legions.)
If the NGC occurs after the municipal elections, in which the ANC has performed shakily, then Ramaphosa is all but doomed, which would constitute Ace’s ideal scenario.
If it occurs before the elections, Ace and minions can whip up fears of an imminent loss.
Either way, Ace can emerge from the NGC more powerful than ever, with the promise of more to power come: his whispered promise to stop the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and Zondo from messing with the RET leaders’ lives and the rank and file’s secure livelihoods.
The composition of the NGC — who attends, and why — is determined by the NEC and the provinces, and Ace will do everything he can to control that process. Because the Council has the right to change party decisions and evaluate the performance of members even within the NEC, and because it has the “power to discuss any issue it deems necessary”, it can serve as a consequential spoiler. And though it must remain subservient to the resolutions adopted at the National Conference, it can also demand an early National Conference, or even better, a Special Conference.
A Special what-now, you ask?
Welcome to the ANC’s nuclear option. Special Conferences are not part of the ANC’s governing self-mythology, but they carry extraordinary power: they can remove senior leadership, and even — gasp! — dissolve the party altogether. In other words, a Special Conference is boss level in a video game. Win it, and the party is yours.
Check this out: the ANC constitution’s Rule 29.3 stipulates that: “Participation at the [Special] Conference shall be determined by the NEC, provided that Branches are represented at such a Conference in proportion to their membership.”
If Ace has a slight majority in the NEC, and if he has the membership numbers, then he takes the Special Conference. If he has that, he can bury Ramaphosa and take the party – well-established fighting moves from the Jacob Zuma edition of Mortal Kombat.
At the very least, a Special Conference would likely be so brutally contested that civil war within the ANC would spill out into the streets, weakening Ramaphosa critically, if not destroying him outright.
That’s Ace’s first prize.
Second prize is slightly trickier. Should the NGC descend into unresolvable discord, and should a call for a Special Conference fail, there would be demands for an early National Conference to resolve the impasse. Here, Ace’s path to victory is slightly rockier. He will have to work hard to assemble the largest ground-level coalition of provincial delegates to back his nominations.
It’s not that he needs to win the presidency — it would be nice, but not necessary. His victory would be sealed by controlling as many appointments to the NEC as possible. As per Ramaphosa in 2017, this costs lots of money and the near-freakish alignment of lucky stars.
But one-time payments are often less effective than the promise of continued patronage, and that’s where Ace holds the advantage. He is not saying that he will clean up corruption, but is instead promising to ramp it up, formalise it, strip away the rules that forbid it, and entrench it as the governing ideology.
Ace wants to Make Corruption Great Again. It will be an irresistible, existential message to his ever-ravenous base.
If Ace wins, how do we know what he’ll do?
Well, he’s told us.
It has been made clear — by Zuma, by Ace’s deputy, Jesse Duarte, by Malema, and by Ace himself — that South Africa’s constitutional democracy has run its course. The Constitution, Ace has told journalists, is not something to concern ourselves with.
If someone tells you that they abhor constitutional democracy, it’s in your best interests to believe them.
Should Ace win, he’d inherit a state in many cases weaker than it was under Zuma, beaten down by economic devastation and the ravages of Covid-19, with social cohesion and a sense of national purpose at the lowest point in democratic history.
And he will need to make only slight improvements on Zuma’s work to create a state security shadow government. He’ll rule through the security cluster, learning from Zuma’s mistakes: namely, you cannot control South Africa with a free media and a functional civil society sector jamming up bandwidth. He will pump state money into garbage media like Iqbal Survé’s Independent empire, and whatever Piet Rampedi is failing at on the internet.
This is not rocket science. It’s the basics of authoritarian government. Assassinations are now common occurrences in this country, and whereas Zuma was constrained in his ability to crush democratic engagement in its entirety, Ace will not be. Zuma had other appetites. Ace has none. There will be no free press under Ace Magashule – on that, he has been clear. And he will at best turn a convenient blind eye to the harassment and violence against the real journalists.
The rest follows as a matter of course:
He will finish Zuma’s work by hamstringing the NPA with purges and bogus appointments, designed to first and foremost drop charges against him and his dearest, and then promise never again to trouble RET factionistas.
He will purge the South African Revenue Service.
He will purge the military brass and install replicants.
He will re-establish full control over the police, and use the State Security Agency to run as a Republican Guard loyal to the presidency.
He will muzzle the opposition (although leaving them to speak would better serve his interests). He will nationalise the Reserve Bank, he will squash any attempts to reform the state-owned enterprises; middle-men will provide finance guaranteed by a quickly established State Bank.
Ace is the strongman our entire system was designed to avoid. But the design is only as good as the operators, and we now know how easy it is to hack the entire mainframe.
There is, of course, the chance that the NPA brings new charges, and that Ace will face further arrests in the near future. He’s back in court on Friday 19 February; this will cheer up his enemies.
But the NPA’s job is not political. It takes charge sheets from various law enforcement agencies, assesses their viability, builds out cases, and prosecutes on the basis of merit. Although this can and should be stepped up, it takes time. A lot of time – recall that Zuma was first accused of corruption several decades ago. Judging by that timescale, Ace owns the entire space-time continuum.
Regarding the attempts to undo State Capture and stop corruption while punishing the criminals, South Africa has almost run out of time.
And yes, as you read these words, principled members of the NEC could be waving their fingers at Ace, insisting that he pack his bags for Isis-governed northern Mozambique. They could try to force him to step down for harming the reputation of the former liberation movement. But what compels him to step down? What are the consequences if he refuses? Who drags him out of his office at Luthuli House? Is the NEC united enough to go all the way and issue a Malema-style expulsion? What happens to his cronies in the party, who are suddenly locked out of the main office?
I’ll let you answer those questions in your spare time. Just remember, even if he is suspended by the NEC, the NGC and the National Conference can overrule that decision, rendering him more or less bulletproof.
For those who think this is baseless alarmism, good luck out there. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, many South Africans, along with numerous foreign observers and experts, consider South Africa to be a democracy. They assume that, because there are still functioning institutions and the lights sometimes switch on, that tyranny is kept at bay.
This is clearly not true. The mechanisms of power lie exclusively within the ANC, which means that the ANC is South Africa. Opposition parties are little more than a joke at the national level, and the EFF is best described as an ANC faction temporarily out in the wild. As state capacity fades and institutions get weaker by the day, battling the rot cannot happen at the ballot box — that is a ruse that legitimises the status quo.
Instead, the ANC needs to be brought into line by other measures, by pursuing bad actors and hounding them out of the party, by demanding immediate and deliberate action from the remaining relatively straight leaders, by backing up institutions like the NPA, and by insisting on the cleaning up and professionalisation of law enforcement agencies. Just as urgently, it’s about advancing our electoral system beyond the Big Party winner-takes-all arrangement, and devising a system in which we hold our representatives accountable. That way, real opposition can emerge.
Most importantly, it’s by preparing for the likelihood that Ace – or someone like him – will take over the ANC. It will be up to the people of South Africa to inform the formerly august liberation movement that such an outcome would be undemocratic, unwise, and unacceptable.
Ace can win. It is time to acknowledge that fact. And figure out what to do as a country when that happens. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.
"I believe in kindness. Also in mischief. Also in singing - especially when singing is not necessarily prescribed." ~ Mary Oliver