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September 1, 2020

Africa

SOUTH AFRICA: Ramaphosa wins NEC battle, faces divisive anti-corruption war

BY Anne Frühauf

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( 5 mins)
  • President Cyril Ramaphosa won a preliminary battle at the ruling ANC’s 28-30 August special National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting, which had to fall in line around his anti-corruption message.
  • But this is a long way from winning the war, not least as the promised corruption crackdown is reigniting factional fighting between the Ramaphosa faction and its opponents.
  • Separately, Finance Minister Tito Mboweni has denied rumors that he might resign, but his position is beginning to look increasingly tenuous.

On 31 August, President Cyril Ramaphosa and the rest of the ANC’s ‘top six’ took the highly unusual step of directly addressing the public following the high-stakes NEC meeting. This allowed the president to come across as assertive and reduce the risk of internal opponents hijacking his messaging. Even internal foes like ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule were on message.

Although the NEC agenda contained various items (from the Covid-19 recovery to the 2021 local elections), the meeting focused firmly on the president’s seven-page letter to party members in which he called corruption an “unforgivable betrayal” and labeled the “ANC accused number one.” Ramaphosa is under unprecedented pressure to demonstrate to voters that he is clamping down on corruption in light of recent pandemic procurement scandals that puncture the myth that his “New Dawn” is any different from ex-president Zuma’s “old ANC.”

As this puts the careers of multiple officials in danger, the fightback is intense. In tit-for-tat fighting over the weekend, NEC member Tony Yengeni reportedly asked Ramaphosa to step down over allegations of vote-buying at the 2017 party conference. While Ramaphosa for the first time spoke of a “choreographed campaign” against him, Yengeni’s comment was not seconded or reached the stage of a formal motion. For now, the prospect of a no confidence motion against Ramaphosa remains a low-likelihood scenario, albeit one that would have an extremely high impact given a budding tradition of sitting presidents being “recalled” by the ANC.

Yet Ramahosa’s seeming strength could be short-lived. The way in which the promised clampdown on corruption unfolds will severely test the balance of power between the CR and Zuma factions. The NEC has resolved that party officials “formally charged” with corruption and other serious crimes must step aside from their posts, and has promised a stronger role for the ANC’s integrity committee. Yet the crackdown will hinge on internal disciplinary mechanisms (toothless to date) and criminal processes (slow in the making). Every suspension and every dismissal will be hard fought, for example the case of former eThekwini mayor Zandile Gumede. Moreover, apparently imminent charges by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) against a key figure involved in the theft of ZAR 220mn (USD 13.2mn) of state funds from the Free State Estina Dairy project could tighten the noose around the neck of Magashule, who was Free State premier at the time of the scandals. This would be a major coup for Ramaphosa, but that battle will not be won easily or quickly.

Ramaphosa’s opponents, especially Zuma, who is now much closer to a criminal conviction and bankruptcy, will do everything to drag the president and his allies through the mud (his spokesperson Khusela Diko is already on special leave over alleged pandemic-procurement corruption involving her husband). They will do their utmost to ensure the president appears at the integrity commission in connection with alleged vote-buying in 2019, though for now the case seems unlikely to go anywhere.

A split in the making?

Not only will the corruption fight result in serious mudslinging and leaked allegations across factional divides, but appearances of “unity” will be even harder to keep up. The eventual price of a corruption clampdown could thus be a party breakup. This would be an electoral gamble for the ANC, but – in the view of some top business leaders – splitting the party and repositioning it in the political center would be the only way to boost the reform outlook.

Mboweni’s demise?

Separately, Finance Minister Tito Mboweni has denied rumors that he might resign, but his position is beginning to look increasingly tenuous. Despite his outspokenness and willingness to challenge ANC policy dogma, he has by and large been unable to push reforms. He appears to have checked out, and apparently often skips meetings. Although his resignation is unlikely to occur quickly, for example, ahead of October’s medium-term budget, his position may well become untenable over time.

Problematically, there are few credible successors for the Treasury’s top job at a time when South Africa’s finances have reached their worst crisis in post-apartheid history. Deputy Finance Minister David Masondo – by no means a market favorite – might also exit the Treasury. The ANC integrity committee has reportedly asked Masondo to step aside after he abused state resources to resolve a domestic dispute, intensifying pressure for his removal if the ANC wants to make good on its ethics push.

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