South Africa

EDITORIAL

Power, the glue that kept the ANC together, now slipping out of Ace Magashule’s grasp

Suspended ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule. (Photo: Gallo Images / Netwerk24 / Felix Dlangamandla)

As the governing party enters an uncertain period of many new crises, an assessment of suspended ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule’s moves since becoming a national officeholder offers a fascinating opportunity to understand what his prospects are for the future.

This weekend brought a heretofore unthinkable moment, where the freshly suspended Secretary-General Ace Magahule was extinguished from the ANC National Executive Committee’s (NEC’s) Zoom screen with the flick of a button. While some at the meeting complained about this disinvitation, the overall feeling appears to have been… nothing much. What did Magashule do wrong in the build-up to this weekend and what is next for him?

But, before that, an assessment.

It is striking how much ridicule has been discharged into South Africa’s cold autumn air since we heard about Magashule’s suspension and his subsequent “countersuspension” of the ANC president, Cyril Ramaphosa. The issue was not only the liberal display of ignorance and the flimsiness of Magashule’s “legal” argument. It was more of a “He did WHAT?” moment, when even his previous track record of industrial-grade incompetence and serial lack of grasp could not prepare anyone for this facepalm point. For a moment the intra-ANC politics looked more like a badly written action plan for Donald Trump’s last days in the White House.

Those who were not firmly in Magashule’s corner, and the media, other than Independent Media newspapers, were all genuinely puzzled. Looking back, however, and enjoying the precious benefit of hindsight, one could understand how Magashule’s (and the entire RET force’s) long-term strategy was to establish an equivalence between the sides in the conflict, therefore also achieving political stasis, where all are locked into mutually assured destruction for decades to come. The strategy is understandable: with “no side being able to cleanly defeat the other” being the state of the ANC play for almost a decade and seemingly possible to extend into eternity, and with the 2017 national conference returning an almost perfect 50-50 power split, the NEC was forced to kick the can until the next crisis.

Seen in this “equivalence” light, the moves by Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane that were so completely outside of even the margins of acceptable behaviour, let alone her job, make complete sense. It was always about dragging everyone into the same mud. And if the collateral damage to this process is a destruction of trust in this crucial-for-democracy chapter 9 institution, then even better.

Not too far off, SAPS Crime Intelligence and the State Security Agency were being fought for, and still are, until the last drop. 

The years since Jacob Zuma stepped down as president were characteristic for their viciously aggressive and loud propaganda campaigns from every corner of the Radical Economic Transformation (RET) world. An obvious goal: to throw so much dust in the SA people’s eyes that everything becomes relative – right could be wrong, Zuma’s presidency was great for our country, decades of Magashule’s leadership in the Free State were actually peaches and cream.

Accordingly, all criminal investigations into corruption are politically motivated witch-hunts. Media exposés are paid for by the haters and executed by racist journalists – and all media are fake news, and, you guessed it, racist.

If you heard it all before, you’re right – it is lifted almost perfectly from Trump’s playbook, adjusted for local conditions, of course.

So this sport of can-kicking, as far as Magashule & Co were concerned, could continue indefinitely. Unfortunately for them, South Africa, and its economy, could not keep pace. 

While fighting internal battles, the ruling party let SA’s economy creep ever nearer to collapse. The Covid-19 pandemic made things desperate, and ANC officials’ and their friends’ PPE corruption marked the point where something had to be done. Even as their continued stay in power is yet to be challenged, they face nationwide resentment and pessimism.

Power is an illusive force, and once you try to use it, and not just hint at it, you lose it. Unless you are 100% certain that the use of power will change things in a convincing way, it will come back to expose your weakness. Every time Magashule argues for it and the NEC simply switches him off, he’s being disempowered in a bad way.

South Africa is on its knees, largely thanks to the ANC’s corruption and incompetence while it exercises power. Everyone knows that, but only a few leaders and many stalwarts of the party feel genuinely ashamed of what the once-liberation movement has become. 

The ANC, and South Africa, had run out of runway. Something had to break.

As the ruling party enters an uncertain period of many new crises, a look at Magashule’s moves since becoming a national office-holder offers a fascinating opportunity to understand what his prospects for the future are.

In his Free State days, he understood well that power begets more power. Perhaps no one has ever controlled a South African province with such personal success and benefit as Magashule did.

But his ascension to national level was never as good.  

While Magashule was never an inspiring leader able to get thousands out of their seats and follow his way, he was deadly effective. He made his  considerable success in transactional space, and it is important to understand just how much the real power, and almost equally important, the illusion of it, are important for his leadership, and maintenance of it. 

They say you recognise true leaders when things are tough. Magashule appears to have failed his leadership test. His moves look more like panic than strategy.

Tactically, every time he calls journalists personally to implore them to hear his claims of leadership and the precedence of his suspension of Ramaphosa, he loses in two important ways.

First, when just a day later this thing called “reality” smashes his version of events, like a rock flying through a window, he is proven to not have a grasp of reality.

Second, and more damaging to his power aura, is the fact that every time he claims power in such a loud way, he loses the same amount of it. 

Power is an illusive force, and once you try to use it, and not just hint at it, you lose it. Unless you are 100% certain that the use of power will change things in a convincing way, it will come back to expose your weakness. Every time Magashule argues for it and the NEC simply switches him off, he’s being disempowered in a bad way.

Closely related to this element is the fact that, once he’s been demoted to an ordinary man, Magashule also loses all of his ability to be fearsome – soon he will find out just how small a circle his real friends can be. 

Unlike Zuma, who was in perhaps an even deeper hole in 2005, Magashule will struggle to mount his comeback through the ANC structures. Zuma had a coherent ideological message of saving the ANC from Mbeki’s “dictatorship” and reversing the horror of the HIV/Aids epidemic. He managed to find powerful allies in the Youth League, Cosatu and the SACP. 

From his angle, Magashule, though he subscribes to RET talking points, has no discernible ideology himself that he can use to embark on a nationwide quest to sell to the party. It is difficult to put in public words that “Cyril is bad for OUR business” and get away with it.

Having all these elements in mind, the “victim” strategy could be disastrous for Magashule. Where Zuma has a way of making his supporters feel sorry for him and still follow him, the never widely loved nor respected Magashule will transform from a powerful, unloved but feared man, into an unloved has-been that no one is afraid of. That is not a place you want to find yourself in. DM

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All Comments 8

  • We should be very wary of the cornered rat with a grudge and delusions of power and grandeur. Burning the ANC house down means burning the SA house down. Oh right, why bother with the latter, that house seems to have been left unattended and derelict. We can only hope for new owners to fix things.

    • “Burning the ANC house down means burning the SA house down”. Wrong! The ANC house is NOT the South African house. Burning the ANC down means SA is free of a greedy corrupt tyrant.

  • With Ace back in his hole – does this herald the time for a whole corruption clear out? Then there’s a chance, just a chance, that the country may earn some self-respect and international respect and actually thrive. Until then we live in an ANC failed state.

  • Excellent and insightful. Compare this to Todays “Editorial” on News24, it is clear who actually is independent and understands Elias Magashule, his methods and motivation More importantly is clearly shows that the censored selective News24 is dancing to someone else’s drum.

  • Let’s hope this is so. Zuma came back, as you state. Seems this weekend was a watershed of Ace’s power waning. Death threats is the last straw. His ANC membership must surely be revoked. Like a modern tragic Shakespearean play.

  • “It is difficult to put in public words that “Cyril is bad for OUR business” and get away with it”
    Unless of course this “OUR business” is looting!

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