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The Ace moves: From convoluted chess game to hints of internal coup


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

The ANC’s Ace problem entered a phase of prolonged ‘conclusion’ this week. It is now an endgame. Yet, as the immediate fallout of the week’s actions showed, the inconclusive Nasrec leadership victories and Ace Magashule’s secretary-generalship will live to haunt the ANC at least into its next elective conference.

The game entered a destined-to-be, convoluted final stretch when the NEC-NWC nexus of uber ANC power suspended Secretary-General (SG) Ace Magashule. It was a complicated point of no return, followed immediately by Magashule’s expected game of trying to regain his slipping power, and complicating his suspension. 

Magashule has depicted himself in social media posts as executing moves in a chess game. Some of his moves are delusional fantasies in which he pretends his pawns have the power of bishops and rooks. 

This includes his attempted suspension of Cyril Ramaphosa from the presidency of the ANC. Others, like his inevitable appeal against the suspension, the likely activation of court action and attempts to prolong his stay in the Luthuli House secretary-general suite are likely to haunt the ANC in king and queen style throughout the 19-month run-up to its next elective conference.

Magashule asserts that he cannot be kept in a state of suspension if he has appealed: “I have appealed (my suspension), I am secretary-general of the ANC, I was elected by conference,” was one of his refrains this week. 

ANC sources argue his first move is set to be an appeal to Mathews Phosa, the high-ranking ANC member and lawyer with some credibility across the ANC’s internal political divide. 

This early 2017 ANC presidential hopeful will hear appeals from ANC representatives who resist the step-aside determinations. Magashule’s alternative will be court action on the basis of the suspension being a breach of his right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. 

Snippets from Luthuli House in the past two days have been that the for-now-suspended secretary-general is cut off from his ANC email system and without an activated head office access card. The stakes are high — his immediate goal through legal action, or an appeal, will be to reactivate his official access to head office, its structures and networks. This is the base of Ace power. It is the core of his king move of influencing the ANC’s configuration of top-level power.

For Magashule, getting elected to the top office in the ANC at the next elective conference will not only realise his apparent dream of owning the ANC nationally, as he did (or still does) in the Free State. It will also help him gain authority over the investigative and prosecutorial authorities of the state — he will stay out of jail. 

In the immediate future and as a stepping stone, his tactic is to create havoc in the ANC, foster renewed NEC contest and turmoil and stir up an implosion of the Ramaphosa ANC. As it stands, and as I dissect in my book Precarious Power, the ANC is contradictorily hovering close to an internal cave-in, even if its electoral standing continuously renders it the dominant political party.

A check on the ANC constitution quickly reveals the delusional nature of Secretary-General Magashule’s attempt to claim power by “suspending” the president. The constitution is clear about the nature of the powers of its secretary-general: administrative and implementational (on the assumption that Magashule was still the secretary-general at the time of the attempted presidential suspension). The secretary-general’s office communicates decisions of the conferences, the national executive committee (NEC), and national working committee (NWC) to structures and members. The NEC and NWC are the authorities that determine the actions to be taken. 

The secretary-general’s office does not have independent executive powers; it communicates orders and rules to the structures of the ANC. The secretary-general simply cannot decide to suspend the president of the organisation single-handedly. 

The secretary-general has an important role in implementing disciplinary processes in the organisation, but these are part of processes between the NEC, integrity commission and other parties of interest. The constitution emphasises that such disciplinary action follows after internal processes and on the authority of the NEC, NWC or corresponding ANC provincial structures.

The ANC constitution also counters the claim by Magashule that Jessie Duarte, as ANC deputy secretary-general, does not have the powers to issue the letter suspending him (temporarily and with full pay and benefits, as the generous notice goes). 

The constitution states that when necessary, the deputy secretary-general shall “carry out the functions entrusted to the SG” by the national conference, NEC and NGC. With this kind of clarity, undoubtedly known to Magashule, it is likely that he imagines himself the smart cat cornering the Ramaphosa mouse. The tit-for-tat suspension game is his sideshow.

The next-level motivation and intermediate chess moves are to claim the powers of suspending the president in the interest of both fostering conflict and stirring up contest at the forthcoming NEC meeting. 

In a media interview, Magashule claimed that he had the backing of the NEC to suspend Ramaphosa. This is doubtful, as the balance of power in the NEC has been tilting in Ramaphosa’s favour, substantially. Ramaphosa also has the clear backing of the NWC. Ace’s current moves are still far removed from any possible checkmate situation.

Enter the long-winded attempted checkmate. His argument is that he is the guarantor of the authentic 2017 conference step-aside resolution — the original, broader decision that all ANC officials (and others) implicated in or accused of criminal or corrupt acts have to step aside. 

He elevates the CR17 Nasrec campaign funding matter into the legal domain by arguing that it “has been ventilated in our courts and the documents related thereto remain sealed. This particular matter relating to the sealing of the documents is pending before our courts”.

The next step, therefore: neutralise Ramaphosa, and Magashule will be halfway to the ANC constitution’s provision that, in the absence of the ANC president and deputy-president, “the secretary-general shall assume the functions of the president”.

Part of Magashule’s king moves is his faux argument that only the ANC branches, which had elected him at Nasrec (by an infamous majority of 24 out of a total of roughly 4,700 valid delegate votes) can recall him and that any other move to suspend him is illegitimate. This amounts to mistaking the powers of the chess board’s pawn for those of a king. 

The ANC NEC has the between-conference powers to take all necessary disciplinary and recall actions. Magashule’s game is to extend his secretary-general life to the ANC’s national general council meeting later this year, or the end of 2022 when the next ANC elective conference is due. He has been building ANC membership and branches in his time in the heart of Luthuli House. He has been working to let the Free State patronage emporium go national.

The NEC meeting this weekend will have to find or confirm the counter moves to negate the Magashule game. The meeting will have the advantage of knowing the Magashule moves in advance. If the opposing moves are not forthcoming, the ANC will be opened up to a chess game that is no less than an attempted internal coup. DM

Susan Booysen’s latest book, Precarious Power: Compliance and Discontent Under Ramaphosa’s ANC, explores the question of how the ANC, discredited and disgraced in so many respects, sustains its popular following and electoral support. It is published by Wits University Press, priced at R350.00, and is available for sale and to order from bookshops and online retailers.


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  • Magashule’s continued occupation of his office in Luthuli house is, I believe, a bellwether indicator of how the plot will thicken!
    I bet he has had the locks on the doors changed.

  • And during all of this the board on which they play dissolves to dust; ignored, unloved, uncared for. The black and white squares losing definition until a derelict grey, wooden, worm-holed plinth remains, providing no clue as to the rules of the game. The stalest of mates.

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