Today, 10 November, the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (DPCI, commonly referred to as the “Hawks”) confirmed that an arrest warrant has been issued for ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule. He is due to appear in court on Friday, 13 November, to face fraud and corruption charges relating to a ZAR 255mn asbestos audit contract dating back to his time as Free State premier. How the high-profile case plays out will have far-reaching consequences for the ANC, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s strength and possibly his reform agenda.
As discussed previously, Magashule’s arrest would remove the single greatest thorn in the president’s side within the raucous ruling party, but it will also trigger threats of a political backlash. The immediate fight will be over whether Magashule – who together with ex-president Jacob Zuma is associated with the ANC’s ‘radical economic transformation’ (RET) faction – should vacate his Luthuli House office immediately. The resolutions of the ANC’s late August National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting would indicate as much, but the RET faction will likely contest his removal by all possible means. Indeed, an initial press statement issued by Luthuli House appeared at best non-committal on the issue.
Legal wrangling will surely be protracted. In the immediate future, the RET faction could fight back via smear campaigns on social and in print media; try to mobilize the Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association (MKMVA) for street protests; or perhaps even threaten to mobilize ANC branches in a recall maneuver against Ramaphosa at the ANC’s National General Council (NGC), which has been postponed owing to the pandemic. Some RET leaders (for example Ekurhuleni Mayor Mzwandile Masina) will likely join the fight preemptively, fearing that they could soon themselves become targets of investigations by the Hawks and the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA). However, overall the RET faction looks much weaker these days and its power, particularly on the streets, should not be overestimated, even if the move against Magashule may inspire intrigue and speculation, perhaps for months to come.
The upside for governance will be limited, as the ANC’s corruption problems run far deeper than the Magashule faction. At best, a successful legal case would signal institutional improvements at the Hawks and NPA. Politically, Magashule’s demise could eventually strengthen Ramaphosa, if the anti-corruption campaign strikes with surgical precision, rather than a blanket sweep, and if the secretary-general becomes increasingly isolated.
There is also speculation among commentators that a political realignment could bolster Ramaphosa’s reform agenda. Clearly, a less influential populist faction would not be a bad thing for the reform outlook, but the institutional capacity to expedite reforms and consensus within Ramaphosa’s own constituency should not be overestimated. After all, Ramaphosa’s faction and its alliance partners are by no means agreed on thorny fiscal policy issues like the wage bill or microeconomic reforms, including in the energy sector.