Defend Truth


Episode 4: Out in their coats

Episode 4: Out in their coats
Illustrative image | Sources: From left — Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe, former health minister Zweli Mkhize and suspended ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule. (Photos: Gallo Images)

In December 2022, the 55th — and possibly last — elective conference of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress will take place against a backdrop of sociopolitical chaos. In the limited audio documentary series, The Highwaymen, investigative journalists Richard Poplak and Diana Neille take a road trip across South Africa in search of answers to how the country got to this breaking point, and how the lives and careers of three senior ANC figures — Ace Magashule, Gwede Mantashe and Dr Zweli Mkhize — may be representative of the rise and stumble of our once-vaunted democratic project and, by extension, liberal democracies everywhere.

In episode four, Richard Poplak and Diana Neille travel to the Free State, where the political assassination of a prominent local ANC leader with integrity, TK and a loving family, signalled a shift in the trajectory of the party and framed the political future of one of its most controversial figures: Ace Magashule.

Below is the full transcript of episode four, with links to the clips, documents and articles gathered and referenced in the reporting and research for it.

Richard Poplak: I’m Richard Poplak, this is Diana Neille. Thank you for inviting us into your home, we appreciate it. If you wouldn’t mind stating your full name and giving us your consent to appear on this podcast.

Nokwanda Ngombane: I am Nokwanda Ngombane, and I do give consent.

My late husband, Noby Ngombane, was born here in Bloemfontein. He was asked to take the role of the interim leadership core of the ANC in the year 2000. His brief was to unify… the ANC in the Free State.

Richard Poplak: We’ve come to Bloemfontein, the sleepiest city in the free world, to speak with Nokwanda Ngombane, about a tragedy that ripped her family apart back in 2005.

It was barely covered by the national media at the time, and when it was, it was only as part of a shoddy cover-up campaign. But it marked a change in the trajectory of the ANC — from divisions, into factions, and into something far, far more sinister. 

It’s March 2022, and we’re sitting across from Nokwanda in her modest, tiled living room. She sits on the couch wearing white, her head shaved close to the scalp, a slight yet somehow powerful figure.

She begins at the beginning: When she met her husband, Noby Ngombane, in a different universe, in a different time.

Nokwanda Ngombane: I met Noby as a starry-eyed 18-year-old… *at UWC in 1989. *[He] worked extensively with… the banned ANC, where they were the most democratic movement structures at the time, in the Western Cape.

He had experienced abject poverty. He told me about how to quieten a growling stomach. I don’t know how that feels like — I come from rural areas, and there was kind of this shelter there. So I got into this heightened sense of political awareness and activism.

At that time there was hope, because we believed that if the municipalities, the local government, was oiled [with] the right people… we could literally get people like him, who didn’t stand a chance, to come up.

Richard Poplak: In almost every way, Noby and Nokwanda Ngombane were the epitome of the idealism of the early ’90s, as the country prepared for democracy. Educated, passionate political activists who were prepared to dedicate their lives to efficient servant leadership.

After several decades building experience as a political science researcher, including a stint in Sweden, in 1998 Noby, along with Nokwanda, settled in Bloemfontein permanently. Noby became the adviser to the premier at the time, Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri.

They returned to a province mired in political contestation.

Nokwanda Ngombane: At the time there was a huge tussle. The division between the so-called north and the south… magnified. That was the rise of Ace Magashule.

Richard Poplak: The story of Nokwanda and Noby Ngombane, which should have been the story of committed activists returning home to help build a country, became something else: a life-shattering event, one that cemented devastating factionalism in the democratic rubric, and set the scene for what the Free State would eventually become: The fiefdom of a mafia boss.

Ace Magashule: The leadership which will come into the ANC must be a leadership which is going to focus on radical economic transformation… There is white monopoly capital… Show us one black who owns the means of production. Show us! Tell us, who owns property? Who owns land? We will expropriate the land without compensation where it was taken unlawfully. What is wrong with that?

Diana Neille: That’s Ace Magashule, former Premier of the Free State, recently suspended Secretary-General of the ANC, doing his best Ace Magashule impression.

We say “impression” because very little about Magashule is real. His mythology is partly invented; almost every moment in his career comes with a big fat asterisk.

Like Zweli Mkhize, we must ask: Who is Ace Magashule?  And, as always, it’s impossible to answer that question without understanding where he comes from.

We’ve driven deep into Bloemfontein’s sleepy suburbs, past old metal jungle gym swing sets from a bygone era painted bright pink, and heaps of dumped garbage. We’re meeting a controversial former member of the provincial parliament and the National Assembly, and a Free State ANC stalwart.

Pat Matosa: My name is Pat Zanemvula Matosa. I was born in the southern Free State town of Rouxville, in the farms.

Diana Neille: Matosa comes off like a gentle uncle these days, but he is best known for two things: diving head first into Free State ANC political warfare almost from the second he was released from Robben Island in the early ’90s, and, later, for pulling the trigger of an unloaded gun pointed at the temple of an Afrikaans cop three times, during a traffic stop in 1996. These days, he’s retired from all of that Steven Seagal stuff.

We meet in his chilly, overstuffed living room. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is playing silently on a flatscreen TV, while Matosa grumbles about Nato. The conversation quickly turns to a different battle, closer to home.

Pat Matosa: So after 1990 unbanning of the ANC, I was formally elected into the full-time regional sector of the ANC, of the Northern Free State, when there were still fourteen regions, before they were consolidated in nine provinces. From that time until now, the ANC in the province has been unstable and divided.

Diana Neille: Famously, when the Orange Free State became the Free State post-apartheid, the consolidation of the province kicked off a confrontation that rivals anything in the history of the ANC.

News clip: We thought after 1994, for what we fought for, things will be better, not for us that fought for it, but for our children. But we are still at the same position.

Diana Neille: Essentially, this was driven by a split in the United Democratic Front that predated the end of apartheid.

Pat Matosa: In the Free State, there were two regions: The Southern Free State, headquartered in Bloemfontein and the Northern Free State, headquartered in Welkom. So it was never, ever, ever, ever a nice political atmosphere. It was open hostility. People were not talking to each other. Those who were seen to be identifying with me, were then hated. Not only shallow differences; it was hatred, in its deepest sense. So it was always two groups, staring each other in the eyes; given an opportunity, people would have murdered each other.

Richard Poplak: Well, a scenario like this, of deep political instability, and right at the dawn of democracy… I suppose that left a huge amount of opportunity for men and women who were looking to bank off the contracts in the state, and to feed off the chaos that was swirling around in the Free State at the time?

Pat Matosa: Ja, those divisions in the party, inevitably… Went to Parliament. So it was quite a painful process for the ANC, honestly, it was so difficult.

Richard Poplak: And no one understands this better than our colleague, Daily Maverick Scorpio investigative journalist, Pieter-Louis Myburgh, who has created a cottage industry around the major figure to emerge from this mess.

His book, Gangster State: Unravelling Ace Magashule’s Web of Capture, is required reading in South Africa.

Pieter-Louis Myburgh: Ace Magashule, I think, really fits the mould of the classic struggle era, ANC/UDF figure. He grew up in a little town called Tumahole, that’s essentially the township outside Parys in the Free State.

Magashule was gradually incorporated into a couple of these anti-apartheid organisations. That’s the Congress of South African Students, the Tumahole Civics Organisation. At quite a young age, he was politically active. But Ace Magashule has a very interesting history, in the broader struggle environment.

Richard Poplak: Interesting would be one way of putting it. Two things are certain: Magashule was born in 1959, and his childhood and youth were filled with serious deprivation. There is poor, and then there is Free State poor during apartheid.

We know that his father died when he was just three years old. His mother was his great influence: she ran a Mo-China gambling operation from their home, and, according to Ace, always encouraged him to do “that which will satisfy you. Anything which will make you happy, you must do”.

In his later life, he would take that advice to heart.

Diana Neille: Magashule was a student at Phehellang Secondary School in Tumahole when the unrest of 1976 broke out. His guide through this period was Fezile Dabi, a political activist who was three years Magashule’s senior. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he established the Tumahole Students Organisation (TSO), which tapped into Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness Movement for its ideological inspiration.

The TSO staged plays with strong political messages and hosted “symposiums, which highlighted the social evils of [their] community”.

Magashule appeared in some of these plays and he was, by all accounts, a theatre nerd. This landed him in the crosshairs of the apartheid authorities who were, famously, not fans of resistance performance art. 

Next came university.

Pieter-Louis Myburgh: He studied at Fort Hare University for a couple of years, in the ’80s. He would have been very much part of the struggle environment; but this is a time that Magashule later on used to really embellish and exaggerate his kind of role in the struggle era. 

The former homeland of Ciskei, where Fort Hare was located… President Sebe had a couple of run-ins with very rowdy students at Fort Hare, including Ace Magashule and his grouping, who were obviously opposed to the Sebe government. And at one point in time, there was quite a violent uprising, and Magashule was arrested that day and charged with public disturbance. So essentially, it’s a slap on the wrist…

But Ace Magashule used that entire sort of narrative to build this very big mythology around him. He said that he was charged for treason, and they had tried to assassinate President Sebe, which is totally at odds with not only the court records and the reporting on all of those developments, but also, you know, some of the very people who were with him during that time.

I think he knew, quite early on that… these lofty struggle labels would earn you quite a lot of power in the movement.

Diana Neille: In the ANC, as freedom approached, the most important currency was, and remains, struggle credentials — who did more, who suffered more, who was more influential with the men and women at the top. 

Already, for a desperately poor kid from the middle of the Orange Free State, it was becoming clear that the ANC was one of the very few routes to upward mobility. And so Magashule began to dissemble, to add little details to his story that, to this day, can’t be verified.

But very real, life-distorting pain lay ahead.

From 1984, many towns in the Orange Free State, particularly Bloemfontein, Parys and Welkom, experienced the worst civil unrest since the Soweto Uprising of 1976.

Magashule was arrested in 1985 under Section 29 of the Internal Security Act. Section 29 was designed to be hell on earth. Detainees were held for the purposes of “intensive” interrogation in solitary confinement without access to lawyers, family, friends or anyone else, other than the bad guys who wanted to hurt them. Magashule was held for around seven months. He would later say:

“I can assure you that Section 29 is serious torture. You know I wanted to commit suicide after that. I was completely and emotionally destroyed.”

Pat Matosa suffered a similar fate.

Pat Matosa: That’s one of the laws that only a few managed to go through, Section 29, and those who went through that process, some of them are mentally disturbed.

Richard Poplak: It stands to reason that Section 29 split Magashule’s life in two unequal and brutal halves — before and after. Which is exactly where the story starts to get misty.

Pieter-Louis Myburgh: Nobody’s really certain exactly where he was, at any given point of the struggle. If you speak to people in the struggle environment… people who have quite a strong and solid footing, and a struggle history… even those kinds of individuals aren’t certain what Ace Magashule really got up to. And that is because, at one point, he was actually absent from the Free State’s on-the-ground UDF activities, when he and a couple of Parys comrades ended up living in Hillbrow for quite a couple of years. And this is where the Ace Magashule story really gets interesting.

Richard Poplak: Hillbrow during the State of Emergency, designated by the regime a grey area — or a mixed race living area — was a realm unlike any other during apartheid. It was a place to disappear.

If there was anywhere in the country to hide in plain sight, it was amongst the junkies, hookers, Bohemians and gangsters of Joburg’s freakiest hood. This marked the start of Magashule’s time in “internal exile” in Johannesburg, which would last from mid-1986 to 1989.

Pieter-Louis Myburgh: So they’re kind of holed-up in this apartment in Hillbrow — this is in the late ’80s — and there’s monies being channelled to them, from the struggle environment. Nobody’s really sure what the money is being used for. And then a very interesting development occurs in the late ’80s. There’s a moment where this issue of the supposed misappropriation of funds does come to a head. There were questions about funds that went to the Magashule grouping, and what it was actually used for, and whether it was actually spent on legitimate struggle activities.

Richard Poplak: The apartheid state’s security branch was a constant, roving menace, and the heat was getting serious. Magashule was part of a group of activists who fled to Zambia in October 1989. He had left his family behind but took with him a woman named Adelaide.

The group were allowed to stay in Chris Hani’s house in Lusaka, and Magashule took pride in the fact that he rubbed shoulders with such giants. 

But one of his fellow exiles from the Hillbrow unit recalls that Hani was not a fan. “Look, Ace is a ladies’ man. He likes to always have women with him. So during that time, apart from having Adelaide with him, he was also bringing other women to Hani’s house.”

This landed Magashule’s crew in trouble with Hani and the rest of the ANC’s top brass. “They said we were putting the house at risk by bringing strange women there, so we were kicked out.”

News clip: South African president FW de Klerk, in consultation with Mandela, announced… the repeal of the nationwide state of emergency, the unbanning of political opposition and the opening of public accommodations to all races.

Richard Poplak: After apartheid, it was time for Magashule to emerge from the demimonde, and find his way back to the Free State. This is where he connected with Pat Matosa.

The thing about Ace, even in those early days, is that while he was not a particularly well-known figure, he came out of a struggle cell in Hillbrow, where he had engendered a lot of suspicion amongst people. Were those rumours swirling around as early as that, or did you not hear anything about Ace?

Pat Matosa: By that time, I was still in prison on Robben Island. But when we came out, there was this concept or term that was used: internal exiles. Generally people say the “inciles”. 

Now, the greatest component of that, were people from Parys, broadly speaking under the leadership and command of Ace. Tumahole and the neighbouring areas were too small for the special branch to sniff him out. So the best jungle became Johannesburg.

Diana Neille: If Zweli Mkhize is the highly educated, technocratic, ANC aristocrat exile, Magashule was part of the ANC that mostly stayed within South Africa during apartheid. Members in cell positions adhered to the Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Code, which stipulated that “every commander, commissar, instructor and combatant must be clearly acquainted with the policy with regard to all combat tasks and missions”.

But this was easier on paper than in practice. The underground networks established during the brutality of the late 1980s were exactly that: underground. Many of these cells endured through the transition to democracy. Not all their activities were licit. And although the Free State was mired in contestation, Magashule plugged in relatively seamlessly.

Pat Matosa: I started to interact with Ace in 1991 or ’92, I think… when Ace was elected for the first time, the original Chairman of the ANC, Northern Free State. We worked so good with Ace, honestly, in those early years there was no problem, honestly.

Diana Neille: The situation was changing quickly, however, and a few years later, battle lines were hardening. In 1998, Noby and Nokwanda Ngombane returned to the province from their stint in Sweden. They got the lay of the land pretty quickly.

Nokwanda Ngombane: The person who was leading the ANC at the time was Thabo Mbeki.

Ace was closely monitored… by the department. Suddenly there was south, north, south, north tussle, and the north seemed to be getting some kind of momentum… Somehow, the south people retreated, if I can put it like that. They felt so defeated. They didn’t understand the game of that type. That was the rise of Ace Magashule. 

Diana Neille: Pat Matosa was quickly learning a similar lesson, the very hard way. Over the course of the 1990s, Magashule changed. He hardened, and leaned into the local factionalism.

Pat Matosa: I can remember one incident, in the instability of the province of the Free State. The national leadership did its best, in terms of dousing the fires of divisions.

I remember one day, Madiba, when he was already president of the country, he called us to Cape Town. All of them were there: senior leaders of the ANC National Working Committee, and the National Office Bearers, they were all there. Then, one by one, we were told to speak our minds, and how to resolve the problem in the Free State.

Then Ace came to speak. You know, Old Man Madiba, he was shaking with anger, and said, in that meeting, “You are a factionalist. We’re trying to resolve problems of the organisation, and here you are, you are a factionalist.”

Madiba pack[ed] his bags; he left the meeting, and said, “Comrade Thabo, I can’t stay in a meeting like this.” Madiba left that meeting.

Richard Poplak: Well, first of all, your Madiba impression is very, very good. Second of all, that gives a sense of how much distaste there was by Madiba, and I suppose that transferred on to Mbeki in later years.

As with many people, Magashule and Matosa began to drift. Then they did more than drift.

Pat Matosa: I became isolated, I’m telling you. You know, in a PC Provincial Executive Committee of 25 members, you find you are alone. [In the] whole 24, they don’t talk to you. But outside the formal structure I was still this respected kind of a human being across the province… I was at the centre of building the structures of the ANC, directing the recruitment of members, dealing with political education and all those things, now. It will not be easy for anyone to just destroy and isolate me.

Richard Poplak: How was Ace able to shore up enough power to completely exclude you from these leadership caucuses?

Pat Matosa: One thing, Ace is a workaholic, he’s an organiser, he’s a mobiliser, he can address 10 meetings in a day. The man does not sleep. Besides that capability and capacity to organise, then it was a question of the art of managing power. Because, he always said to me, “once you have power, Pat, don’t play with power. Once you lose it, you lose it forever. Be able to use power to a particular purpose”.

Richard Poplak: As Magashule shored up his power, he became chair of the province, and he chaired the Deployment Committee — meaning he was the guy who handed out jobs. The generous euphemism for this practice is “cadre deployment”. The ANC has perfected it, but few were better than Magashule.

He’s having a large network of very wealthy businessmen and women. Newspapers! I don’t know whether he has changed now, but when I was still with him in politics, Sunday newspapers — Ace was not reading your first page headlines and things. He was reading the advertisements. Every job opportunity that you find in the Free State, Ace will be the first one to know, and he’s phoning people, then he’s opening job opportunities for people. And ordinarily, people will come to say thank you to him, because I got the job through you.

Diana Neille: Magashule had earned a new nickname — Mr Ten Percent, after his custom of taking one-tenth of all provincial contracts for himself. The Free State was slowly becoming his province, but there were one or two obstacles in front of him.

Nokwanda Ngombane: At that time, there was this move to mute that which did not fit into the ANC’s way of thinking. And I feel that was a very big mistake. And the second big mistake was, when Noby was killed, the first thing the ANC said was, “that was not a political killing”, when in fact it was a political killing. And now here we are, with the African National Congress having normalised Noby’s death. Having decided to find a nice scapegoat. Maybe they thought I was a naive person from the rural Transkei. That I would sit and cry and go to prison, and life would go on. So that was the onset, as far as I’m concerned, of giving a blank cheque… that anything and everything here in this land of the ANC is permissible.

Next, we see how Ace Magashule came to own an entire province, and reset the ANC brand in his own image. DM

Fact-checking and additional research by Sasha Wales-Smith.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    It’s disgusting how ACE used the opportunity of vulnerable communities to normalise feathering his nest with more power and riches than anyone could imagine. The ANC has proved itself to be an enabler of corruption and the enemy of The People.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted