April 30, 2021


SOUTH AFRICA: Zondo commission appearance barely moves the political needle

BY Anne Frühauf

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  • President Cyril Ramaphosa’s appearance at the Zondo inquiry into state capture this week did little to move the political needle or cleanse the ruling ANC of its reputational stains.
  • While Ramaphosa will again be under scrutiny at the inquiry next month, the most important marker of the political direction will be the fate of ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule.
  • Since the secretary-general is unlikely to step aside by 30 April, a suspension process should start at the ANC’s National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting starting on 7 May.

Humility but no real admissions

Despite press commentary voicing disappointment or framing Ramaphosa’s appearance as a Waterloo moment, the president’s testimony at the Zondo commission, on 28-29 April, was always unlikely to more the political needle. Perhaps the most significant aspect was his very presence at the inquiry, which reaffirmed his government’s support for Zondo and the judiciary more broadly, in stark contrast to ex-president Jacob Zuma, who faces a pending Constitutional Court sentence for steadfastly refusing to appear before the commission. Appearing as the current head of the ANC, the content and tone of Ramaphosa’s contributions was humble, saying that he did not intend to “defend the indefensible” and admitting “massive system failure” in counteracting how private interests captured cabinet and political ‘deployment’ decisions for a decade, dealing devastating blows to South Africa’s governance, finances, and public enterprises.

Yet there was always a limit to how much distance Ramaphosa could credibly put between his ‘New Dawn ANC’ and Zuma’s ‘state capture ANC,’ seeing as he served as deputy president and head of the ANC’s political committee (2014-18) directing the ANC parliamentary caucus through much of the state capture era. Ramaphosa’s vulnerabilities include the financing of his own 2017 ANC presidential campaign and his nominal role in ANC ‘cadre deployment’ decisions, including at SOEs. While nothing damaging surfaced specifically against Ramaphosa this week, the president’s next moment of scrutiny will be in late May, when he is due to return to the inquiry, this time in his capacity as president.

Electoral stakes

With municipal elections due on 27 October, the ANC would do well to at least try to improve its image ahead of the vote. Ramaphosa admitted – unlike other leaders – that the ANC’s record losses in the 2016 municipal elections (in which the ANC’s overall vote share dropped eight percentage points to 53.9%, and the ANC lost key cities like Tshwane and Johannesburg) reinforced the need to address corruption. However, under Ramaphosa’s own tenure, the pandemic – including PPE corruption scandals – and the latest allegations engulfing the Risk Mitigation Independent Power Producer Procurement Program (RMIPPPP) seem very unlikely to disabuse voters of the notion that the ANC is turning a leaf on the era of grand corruption. At best, Ramaphosa can signal his intent to make amends, pointing out in his testimony that the Party Political Funding Act is now in force and agreeing under questioning that internal elections should also be regulated.

More important battle

For now, the more important signal about the ANC’s direction will come from Magashule’s looming suspension. The deadline for ANC officials facing charges to step aside voluntarily runs out today, 30 April. Since Magashule seems unlikely to throw in the towel, a battle to suspend him will probably ensue at the next NEC starting on 7 May. Ramaphosa’s faction seems to be angling for a five-year suspension. If imposed, this would be a positive signal, strengthening Ramaphosa internally and demonstrating that the party is getting more serious about spring cleaning (some of) its corrupt grandmasters.

Yet, as so often, such a clear-cut outcome seems unlikely. Magashule appears poised to challenge his suspension. The recent five-year suspension of former ANC provincial secretary and premier of North West province, Supra Mahumapelo, is being portrayed as a template for Magashule’s removal. However, Mahumapelo has challenged his suspension, and a 29 April letter from Magashule, in his capacity as secretary-general, conveniently assures Mahumapelo that “your membership of the ANC remains intact” while his appeal is under way. This precedent suggests yet more drama before Magashule can be removed from the nerve center of ANC operations.

If Magashule is ultimately suspended, alongside the likes of Mahumapelo, and Zuma is sanctioned, stability within the ANC might improve ahead of the all-important elective congress in 2022, which will determine whether Ramaphosa will be a one- or two-term president. Speculation over a party split will follow, though neither Zuma nor Magashule command the following they once did.

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