While today brought slightly better-than-expected news on the economic front – with Q3 GDP growing at 13.5% q-o-q following the disastrous lockdown-related contraction of 16.6% in Q2 – on the political front an upside is not yet clear. Concluding a three-day ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting today, 8 December, President Cyril Ramaphosa stuck firmly to the message that ANC members facing corruption charges ought to step aside. This increases pressure on corruption-accused Secretary-General Ace Magashule but it is still uncertain whether a forthcoming integrity commission process will spell the beginning of Magashule’s end or merely another ethically questionable ANC fudge.
Although the NEC meeting agenda featured issues ranging from the pandemic to economic recovery, the biggest bone of contention was Magashule’s fate. As always, how the party tackles the issue (or not) will be interpreted as signals of the factional balance of power, Ramaphosa’s strength and, by extension, the outlook for reforms.
As a next step, Magashule has to present himself to the ANC Integrity Commission on 12 December. But two different narratives are now emerging about the likely outcome of the process. The first suggests that the latest NEC could turn out to be the beginning of Magashule’s end. Of five legal opinions sought by the ANC, the majority endorsed the implementation of the party’s ‘step aside’ resolution. Former Gauteng Health MEC Bandile Masuku is cited as an example of an official forced to step aside and facing charges for his role in PPE procurement corruption. This might have had less to do with the integrity commission and more with factional opposition to Masuku. Yet similarly, the political tide could also be turning against Magashule on the NEC, even if not overwhelmingly given the many comrades who may themselves fear corruption charges.
The second, more skeptical view is that the integrity commission process is unlikely to deliver much. Findings by the integrity commission have been disregarded in the past, including by ex-president Jacob Zuma or Deputy Finance Minister David Masondo. Magashule will likely argue that his legal process is sub judice and thus makes it hard to suspend his ANC membership. He will push the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ principle, which of course applies from a legal standpoint, but not from the point of view of ethics and of a party that needs to salvage what is left of its reputation ahead of the 2021 municipal elections.
Once the integrity commission provides its findings, which may well endorse the ‘step aside’ principle in the case of Magashule, the secretary-general’s fate may still be up to broader party dynamics. If Ace, like others, ignores the commission, one of the few ways to remove Magashule would be for the next NEC meeting (early next year) to unequivocally rubber-stamp the integrity commission report. Failing that, Magashule could be in office for months to come, while his court process, which has been postponed until February, drags on. Among other powers, this would allow him to control the branch and membership process in the run-up to the ANC’s National General Council (NGC), which means Ramaphosa could face a less friendly crowd in April, or whenever the NGC eventually takes place. Still, failing a prior NEC decision, the NGC would be the most likely decision-making point when Magashule, who has said that only ANC branches can remove him, could meet his Waterloo.