The arrest and first court appearance last week of ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule on 21 corruption and fraud charges may have dramatically escalated the long-simmering internecine factional warfare in the almost 109-year old liberation-movement-turned-political-party. Or it could signal the beginning of an end to these tensions.
It has raised questions such as whether this development could ultimately weaken the party or split it, destroy it, or perhaps even lead to the fall of President Cyril Ramaphosa. Alternatively, others ask whether it may not finally start ridding the ANC of a corrupt faction, something that may initially weaken the party but will eventually strengthen Ramaphosa’s position within it.
A key turning point
The unhelpful answer to these questions is, yes, any of the above are possible. The only likely political certainty at this point is that Magashule’s arrest suggests a key turning point in the Ramaphosa-led project to start cleaning up corruption in the country but especially also in his own party… coming after a long lull and growing public impatience. A word of caution though: a variety of widely welcomed political and related developments have previously sent expectations and euphoria sky-high, only to come crashing down in disappointment.
Nonetheless, this development, along with recent developments in the economic sphere, also suggest that Ramaphosa’s “strategic patience” has worn thin and that his pussy-footing around various entities in the ANC-led tripartite alliance to try and secure unity and cohesion, may have come to an end.
Appearing last week in the Bloemfontein magistrate’s court, Magashule faced 21 charges of corruption related to a R255 million asbestos eradication contract in the Free State, awarded when Magashule was still premier of the province and from which he is claimed to have personally benefitted. Several other people have already appeared in court on charges relating to the same contract, including businessperson and one-time ANC insider, Edwin Sodi.
While Ramaphosa has pledged that there would be no political interference in the state’s fight against corruption, there is little doubt that he would have been warned in advance and provided with details of the impending arrest of his secretary-general. One could perhaps speculatively argue that, had he felt his position could become seriously threatened as a result, he could have intervened “in the national interest” or some such pretext.
That he hasn’t, suggests he either feels confident enough to proceed and/or he is truly committed to his clean-up pledge regardless of the personal cost.
Shifting balance of power
There has long been an uneasy co-existence between Magashule and some of the other members of the ANC’s top 6 leaders, with Magashule often adopting controversial positions on various matters. This appeared to have come to a head at a special ANC national executive committee (NEC) meeting a few months ago to deal with corruption and a letter penned by Ramaphosa to ANC members on the issue. In the week preceding the meeting there had been several attempts from those who oppose Ramaphosa to block, silence, embarrass or even remove him (the latter as rumoured).
The power balance between the factions on the all-powerful NEC has at times been severely tested by the razor-thin margin with which Ramaphosa became president of the ANC in December 2017. This seemed to change significantly at the special NEC meeting when Ramaphosa and allies outmanoeuvred Magashule and his faction and decisively gained the upper hand.
Some in the party suggest that in the preceding months Ramaphosa had shrewdly been building his majority support on the NEC through various strategic moves, culminating in the shift during this special NEC meeting. Like moths drawn to a candle, political cadres usually tend to flock to the perceived centre of power.
Nonetheless, one by one the corrupt cards had started toppling during the preceding few months but even more so after the NEC meeting as the alleged corrupters and fraudsters were arrested. The important message to the public is that Ramaphosa’s reform promises are being kept, albeit later and slower than most had hoped for or expected.
Building a strong case
Bail for Magashule was set at R200,000… a hefty sum that suggests the case against him is significant and strong, which is also what the NPA is claiming. For the ANC reformists it had better be because a successful conviction of Magashule will strengthen their hand, while failure could embolden those who want to see them fall.
However, prior to Magashule’s arrest, many were wondering when the truly “big fish” from the Zuma-ruled years of state capture and corruption would start falling. Up to that point, Zuma’s little-known former state security minister, Bongani Bongo, had arguably been the most senior politician arrested and charged.
The likely reason for the delay in arresting someone like Magashule may be purely practical from a legal point of view, and not political as so many have speculated. With the NPA’s previously botched Free State Estina dairy farm case in mind, and with new leadership, the Hawks and the NPA would want to get it 100% right this time, especially when prosecuting a high-profile politician like Magashule.
Also, with such corruption cases, investigators and prosecutors often prefer building a strong case from the bottom up, flipping witnesses for the state along the way. Which is exactly what seems to have happened in Magashule’s case when those lower down the ladder were first arrested; when former Free State MEC Mxolisi Dukwana fingered him at the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture; and when Magashule’s former personal assistant, Moroadi Cholota, turned state witness in the current case against him.
Adopting the Zuma playbook
It’s quite obvious that Magashule himself realised this all along, and decided his best bet was to play according to the Jacob Zuma playbook almost perfected over nearly two decades of dodging his own corruption case. It started with strong denials, claims of victimhood, floating false information and perceptions through the media, and then, when the net closed in, launching a political campaign to defend himself. This is likely to be accompanied by a legal campaign in the courts that may seek to delay and weaken the case or have it withdrawn, just like in Zuma’s case. Whether this will succeed, remains to be seen.
Magashule’s political campaign was launched at the Bloemfontein court in which he appeared last Friday. Of course, his preparatory footwork to fortress himself was done long ago via his networks in the ANC and across its NEC, leagues, provinces, branches and regions where, in his powerful position as secretary-general, he had the ears of many and his hands on all the important levers of power.
After Magashule’s arrest became imminent, ANC officials issued a statement saying Magashule himself had requested that those who wanted to support him at court should do so in a private capacity minus any ANC regalia or dress. Wherever this idea came from, it served more as call to arms for a large number of Magashule supporters who arrived in ANC colours and burnt t-shirts bearing Ramaphosa’s face.
In true Zuma style, and also reminiscent of court appearances of EFF leaders, Magashule’s court appearance was turned into a political meeting complete with mobile stage, loudspeakers, fiery speeches, struggle songs and toyi-toying. This time, however, there was also strong condemnation of this behaviour from others across the ANC, including especially from Free State branches that have disavowed Magashule.
Magashule-supporting ANC bigwigs like Carl Niehaus (a liar and a fraud who now speaks for the MK Military Veterans’ Association), Supra Mahumapelo (ousted confidante of Zuma and the Guptas and a former North West premier), Tony Yengeni (convicted fraudster and current NEC member), Bongo (who faces corruption charges himself), Malusi Gigaba (disgraced, short-lived finance minister under Zuma) and Joe Maswanganyi (Zuma confidante and controversial former transport minister) showed up at the court in support of Magashule.
Magashule joined recent other ANC arrestees in ignoring an ANC resolution that they should step down from their positions until their cases have been completed, a rule he as secretary-general is supposed to enforce. On Twitter and in speeches at the court, supporters were told that Magashule would be going nowhere, that he would finish his term as secretary-general, that only the ANC branches could remove him via a special conference, that the ANC had been “infiltrated” by “the enemy”, that it was “all politics”, that Magashule had done nothing wrong, and that “this is war”. Ekurhuleni mayor and Zuma’s “defender to the death” Mzwandile Masina said Magashule was being prosecuted over his support for “radical economic transformation” (RET) and blamed it all on apartheid laws. There was also a call made for civil unrest.
How significant is all of this?
So, just how dangerous is this and where may it lead? Firstly, can this faction remove Ramaphosa? There are several ways in which Ramaphosa could hypothetically be removed, none of which seem very viable for a variety of reasons but especially given Ramaphosa’s majority support on the NEC and possibly throughout the ANC.
The best option his detractors have, is the one they have long been contemplating. That is, to start a process at the National General Council (NGC) of discrediting Ramaphosa by accusing him of blocking the implementation of radical ANC resolutions adopted at its December 2017 elective national conference. While the NGC cannot remove him, it could refer Ramaphosa to a disciplinary hearing while his opponents could even call for a motion of no confidence. They would then take that process forward to the ANC’s 2022 national conference, hoping to vote him out of office and replace him with one of their own. This is the process they had in mind for the NGC that was scheduled for mid-2020 but has now been postponed to early next year.
Until that conference, however, Ramaphosa just has to hang onto and possibly strengthen the majority he now enjoys on the NEC and in various other ANC structures. Also, by that time a number of his worst, most influential opponents may have been suspended or expelled from the ANC, in jail or tied up in criminal court cases.
The bigger danger for the future political and social equilibrium lies with these reckless so-called ANC leaders – such as Magashule, Niehaus, Yengeni, Zuma, Masina and others – who have no qualms about the havoc they may create when mobilising their followers against their opponents.
Will the ANC split?
It still seems unlikely that the ANC will split down the middle or break up. There may, however, be a splintering away of a faction or factions aligned with the anti-Ramaphosa forces, while the tripartite alliance could break up around economic policy and strategies (the latter is not a very big possibility at present despite tensions with COSATU).
If Magashule and others on his side of the dividing line are expelled or jailed and any popular fallout can be contained, it will strengthen Ramaphosa’s position without much harm to the party, other than reputational. And if the forces around Magashule and allies decide to splinter away, it may initially weaken the ANC as an organisation but could eventually be overcome, while it will strengthen Ramaphosa’s hand.
It is also important to note that Magashule is currently the most powerful representative of the anti-Ramaphosa faction in the ANC, after others lost their key positions in the ANC or government. His removal could be a mortal blow to that faction, leaving its remaining followers in the ANC somewhat leaderless and without direction. This thought will energise his comrades like Mahumapelo and Yengeni to do all they can to prevent him from losing his ANC position. Magashule has become their ticket to regaining their lost kingdom.
The ANC’s relatively strong performance in last week’s 107 by-elections despite so much recent negative publicity, should be a source of comfort for the ANC. Dealing decisively with the criminals in their midst will only help restore public confidence in Ramaphosa and increase support for his party, with many dormant voters and defectors possibly returning to the party.
Unfortunately, the ANC and the country are not guaranteed a peaceful or trouble-free end to this saga, however. Magashule and company could still ignite open revolt against Ramaphosa, dragging the entire country into the fray. But for now, my money would be on current anti-corruption developments weakening and eventually eradicating the destructive forces allied to Zuma and Magashule. This is why it is so important that the Hawks and the NPA get it right this time and secure a conviction.
Stef Terblanche is a Cape Town-based political analyst/consultant and journalist. He writes in his personal capacity.