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Phalanx of forces encircling Supra Mahumapelo


Susan Booysen is Director of Research, Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA), and visiting and emeritus professor, Wits School of Governance.

The 2018 war of Ramaphosa versus Mahumapelo, all but sealed although still to go through the final wrap-up, will go down in history as a formidable war of position. It is a nasty war, one that tests the attempted ANC reinvention.

President Cyril Ramaphosa as prime force behind the new and purportedly self-correcting African National Congress is gradually starving the former stalwart of the Zuma-Gupta empire, premier Supra Mahumapelo, of ANC organisational oxygen.

It is an adaptation of the tactical formula that was used to remove Jacob Zuma from the ANC and South African presidencies. Mahumapelo had not only been a key operator in Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma’s now thwarted rise into power, but is a pillar of the Jacob Zumaist presidential rear-guard action to destabilise the Ramaphosa order, and get a reversal by at the latest the ANC’s 2022 elective conference.

This week saw probably the last of the Mahumapelo moves, flipping between his provincial ANC and government powers.

First, he dangled the surrender flag, dallied with the date of his departure, and then retreated behind the final defence line of powers of the Provincial Executive Committee (PEC) of the North West ANC. Ramaphosa could not use directly the analogy of Zuma’s removal from power: premiers in ANC-majority provinces are appointed by the president of the country on the basis of candidates proposed by the provincial ANC structure. Mahumapelo used his biggest remaining weapon therefore to thwart the National Working Committee (NWC) directive to resign. He also managed to “defuse” on Wednesday a mini-putsch by supporters outside the PEC meeting. This Supra fightback is still likely to fail – but Mahumapelo has now claimed an image of standing up to “Ramaphosa’s faction purgers”.

The case of the NWC-NEC versus the PEC could be one for the high courts of the country to ponder … if Mahumapelo continues resisting and the NEC baulks. On the election of premiers, section 128 of the Constitution of South Africa merely refers to the provincial legislatures electing one of its members as premier; there is no mention of party-political practice, through which the president and his advisers select from three options the governing party in the province submits to the president. This has been accepted governance practice, unchallenged to date.

Section 19 in the ANC constitution, however, might still be the PEC’s undoing: a key PEC responsibility is to “ensure that the Provincial, Regional, Branch and other structures of the ANC in the Province function democratically and effectively”. This PEC, the one based on structures appointed largely by Mahumapelo in the face of failed branch and regional operations?

The major power source in the Mahumapelo bloc is nevertheless the phantom of “ANC unity”. Ramaphosa’s Nasrec victory stood in the shadow of the ANC metamorphosing into a de facto alliance of two factions. ANC unity became Ramaphosa’s biggest assignment, on par with cleaning up the ANC and its government. Without that “unity” of a special and very adverse type the ANC would be history in the next national election. Mahumapelo has used the factional purging card to try to survive.

Mahumapelo remaining in provincial government power would have held critical value for the Zumaist ANC, symbolising the survival of the Premier League. The Zumaist factions in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape are working towards a new Premier League type formation. With other Premier League pillars Ace Magashule now with one foot in each of the two camps, and DD Mabuza confirmed as a Ramaphosa-Mashatile operative, a new formation is needed as a fightback rescue craft to harness die-hard followers on the ground. They spotted an opening in Mahumapelo hanging on to ANC provincial power; without state power and the ability to disperse patronage, this power diminishes.

Other threats that Mahumapelo used to forestall the inevitable included his dangling of the sword of instituting forensic audits into the activities of all provincial legislature members since 1994. The threats remain, but Mahumapelo’s tight North West corner is unlikely to stand up against a far bigger alignment of forces against him.

The last two weeks’ unfolding stranglehold on Supra Mahumapelo is the tale of remarkable strategic planning, plus some coincidence. A five-sector phalanx of forces contracted around Mahumapelo, up to the point of executing a deadly grip that finally cut his political lifeline. They came from civil society and labour, opposition parties and the media, provincial ANC formations, national ANC structures, and national government inclusive of ministers and high-level officialdom.

The first segment of the anti-Mahumapelo power bloc was the two-month-plus strike of the National, Education Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu). It paralysed government services even beyond the near-nothing threshold of prevailing North West governance. When the bus strike kicked in, on top of virtually non-existent local government at multiple localities, and media reports on a lucrative Denel bursary for Mahumapelo Junior, the citizenry tripped and went into violent and disruptive protest. Mahikeng and other municipal centres were under siege.

It was also a politically instigated war of ANC factions on the ground – the North West is ANC country, and ANC people are fighting ANC people. In this second segment, parts of all ANC structures in North West are by now against Mahumapelo, except the few that he appointed himself.

The opposition political parties were a significant third segment, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in particular. As in the case of Zuma’s removal the opposition was on hand, this time with a North West provincial legislature motion of no confidence against Mahumapelo (still pending). There is enough division in the provincial ANC (extending into the provincial cabinet) for such a motion to be carried.

A week ago the official ANC dominoes started tumbling as the fourth segment of forces to “deal with” Mahumapelo started rolling out. ANC top structures assumed position. The ANC’s National Working Committee (NWC) gave Ramaphosa the mandate to ask Mahumapelo to resign, as premier. On Thursday the Supra-Cyril meeting took place.

This Monday Ramaphosa reported back to his Top Six. No statement followed after this meeting; Mahumapelo was given the space to hang himself, “with dignity”. The resignation came; and then evaporated. The unyielding question, late Wednesday afternoon, was whether the National Executive Committee (NEC, with its final decision-making powers) will advance into a special meeting to execute the NWC’s directive.

The power of national government, the fifth segment, to act on the failed provincial government comes into play at this point. Ramaphosa’s Inter-Ministerial Committee (IMC), complemented by a task team of high-level bureaucrats, have been working their way around the North West departments (chaired, ironically, by Dlamini Zuma, as Minister in the Presidency), and reported to yesterday’s Cabinet meeting… at the same time as Mahumapelo was regrouping to construct a new line of defence, from a position of serious strategic retreat and tactical weakness.

Full details of the IMC report are awaited, but given the state of non-governance and national interventions already in place in health and the Treasury (contrasting with high-profile Mahumapelo projects like Setsokotsane, an unaudited special purpose service delivery vehicle located in the premier’s office, like the Magashule’s Free State Operation Hlasela, established ostensibly to drive service delivery and development), the Supra survival stakes are dismal.

By all indications, the battle is over, except the message still has to find its way to the particular fight-backer trench. DM


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