March 31, 2021


SOUTH AFRICA: Headline risk in ANC politics

BY Anne Frühauf

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  • Despite months of stalling, the battle to remove ruling party Secretary-General Ace Magashule has inched a step closer towards an outcome.
  • The so-called ‘radical economic transformation (RET)’ faction will create maximum chaos in the interim.
  • The situation will test Ramaphosa’s authority, and his reform and anti-corruption agenda.

A chaotic ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting on 26-29 March saw a showdown between President Cyril Ramaphosa’s faction and the so-called ‘radical economic transformation (RET)’ faction led by ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule over the so-called ‘step aside’ rule that requires party members to step down if they face charges for “corruption or other serious crimes”. Ramaphosa’s faction had pushed for all criminally accused members – most prominently, Magashule – to be given seven days to step aside, but the RET faction disputed that such a resolution had actually been adopted. Ramaphosa’s opponents threatened to trigger a special ANC conference via mass resignations, though this seems a tough call given that they would need the majority of the nine ANC provincial structures and three ANC leagues (Women’s, Youth and Veterans) to back the move for an elective conference. Today’s court ruling overturning the outcome of the ANC Free State provincial conference 2018 will further undermine Magashule.

The final NEC statement provides that: “All members who have been charged with corruption or other serious crimes must step aside within 30 days, failing which they should be suspended in terms of Rule 25.70 of the ANC Constitution.” The additional days are only to allow for the “implementation of the decision in line with the guidelines, not to review the decision.” In Magashule’s case, the ANC Integrity Commission had already recommended in December that the secretary-general step down after he was formally charged with 74 counts of corruption and fraud in relation to a Free State ZAR 233mn asbestos removal tender (the next trial date is set for August).

What comes next?

Although the battle around Magashule’s position appears to be dragging towards the finish line and his eventual removal would remove the biggest thorn in Ramaphosa’s side, the secretary-general is unlikely to step down voluntarily. That is unless there were some kind of behind-the-scenes deal, to which Ramaphosa backers leading the charge do not appear to be inclined. This means that, after the 30-day period lapses, Magashule would need to be suspended by the ANC NEC. This process will require ANC officials to open a case against Magashule and would happen via a special NEC meeting. (Magashule’s argument that only branches can suspend him is not well established.) The suspension could potentially be done within a matter of days, though Ramaphosa’s tendency to be a stickler for process and legal challenges by Magashule could mean further delays, in a worst case for months. Moreover, infighting over the procedural “guidelines” seem likely, especially since there are multiple ‘step-aside’ cases pending.

While Magashule clings on to office, his faction will try to create maximum chaos in the hope of shifting the power balance in the ANC. As a result, chaotic and contradictory messaging from the party would become even worse, suggesting elevated headline risk in the coming weeks. The RET faction will likely spread misinformation and even stoke unrest. This was already evident in Magashule’s recent appearance in student protests, when the secretary-general joined students effectively against the ANC government. (The students protested student debt of around ZAR 14bn – a demand that could aggravate fiscal dilemmas further down the line.)

Magashule, together with Zuma and other allies, will also campaign to heap corruption accusations on their opponents. A particularly noisy period could be around Ramaphosas’s scheduled appearances at the State Capture Commission of Inquiry (Zondo Commission); he is due to appear on 22-23 April on behalf of the ANC, and on 28-29 April to testify as president and former deputy president.

Other anti-RET battles

The Ramaphosa faction asserted its interests more clearly in other NEC matters. By reaffirming the importance of the Zondo Commission, the NEC took a stance against ex-president Jacob Zuma’s worrying threats that he will not budge to “judicial dictatorship”. The ex-president now faces a contempt ruling from the Constitutional Court for his refusal to appear before the commission. A prison sentence, as requested by the Zondo Commission, would be a political watershed, though other outcomes could be a suspended sentence or fine.

The Ramaphosa faction also asserted itself over the matter of Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane, who now faces a parliamentary process to remove her from office. Magashule had contradicted party Chair Gwede Mantashe when Luthuli House guided the ANC’s parliamentary caucus to support the Democratic Alliance-sponsored motion.

Finally, the NEC issued a warning to ANC members not to associate themselves with “so-called ‘RET Forces.’” This will hardly end factionalism and noise, but could be procedurally relevant, as any use of ANC resources or premises for RET purposes as this would now trigger disciplinary proceedings against party members.

Bottom line

All in all, the Ramaphosa faction emerged stronger from the NEC meeting, even if Ramaphosa’s ‘long-game’ approach is deeply frustrating. In a best-case scenario, major upsides could emerge over the next few months: Magashule could be removed from Luthuli House (within about a couple of months), Zuma could be censured by the Constitutional Court, and Mkhwebane could be removed from office within the next three months or so.

However, it would be imprudent not to consider the alternate scenario. In this case, Magashule could drag out his removal by months, for example, via legal challenges, while he remains in control of ANC organizational matters, particularly the organization of the long-delayed ANC National General Council (NGC). This could expose Ramaphosa to much greater pressure. Moreover, if the ANC fails to enforce its ‘step aside’ resolution, Ramaphosa’s reform and anti-corruption agenda will look even less convincing. While the dysfunctional ANC always moves at a snail’s pace, Ramaphosa is short of time, as he risks ever deeper voter disillusionment ahead of the municipal elections due between August and November.

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