Ace in the hole*

Ace Magashule’s 10th November arrest linked to his involvement in the Asbestos Scandal has the potential to be a seismic political event for South Africa, should he be successfully prosecuted and sentenced. This caveat is important, given both the long-standing capacity constraints at the NPA and the botching of previous state capture prosecutions, including the reversed freezing of Gupta assets in relation to the Transnet-Regiments Capital deals. This case is likely to be different, as the evidence package has been built by the highly-capacitated Zondo Commission in line with the NPA Investigative Directorate.

What could happen next?

Given that the legal merits or otherwise of the state’s case against Magashule and others is both uncertain and beyond our scope here, we will rather concentrate on the political process and consequences that could arise, presuming the case sticks.

“Cadres of the ANC who are formally charged for corruption or other serious crimes must immediately step aside from all leadership positions in the ANC, legislatures or other government structures pending the finalisation of their cases. The Officials, as mandated, will develop guidelines and procedures on implementation, and the next NWC meeting will review progress. In cases where this has not happened, such individuals will be instructed to step aside.” See full NEC statement from August 30 here.

Nominally, in line with the much-vaunted NEC decision taken in August that ANC members charged with corruption should step aside, Magashule should leave his positions as Secretary General and NEC member until such time as he is cleared or sentenced. The odds of Magashule voluntarily stepping aside are, needless to say, quite slim – especially given that less powerful politicians than he have proven resistant to pressure.

So he will have to be forced out if Ramaphosa wants to get rid of him. The procedural route to getting rid of Magashule comes via the sheep in wolf’s clothing National Disciplinary Committee. According to S25.18 of the ANC Constitution, a member who is found guilty of corruption by the NDC is automatically expelled from the organisation (which would mean Magashule yielding all his other positions as well). But rules and regulations are easily subverted, especially with Nomvula Mokonyane as the chair of the Appeals Committee. So, enforcement would have to be driven through the NEC by Ramaphosa and his allies.

When does it happen?

Should it happen, the timing of a Ramaphosa-aligned push to remove Magashule would be important. He cannot be pushed too early: firstly, this risks lending credibility to claims of the politicization of the Free State corruption trials, which Magashule will be keen to amplify. Secondly, the NDC lacks the investigative capacity to convict Magashule of corruption before the actual trial has taken place. He also cannot wait too long: the optics of Magashule overseeing the ANC’s operations do not play well with Ramaphosa’s anti-corruption drive – especially not in an election year. More importantly, Ramaphosa cannot allow Magashule to control the accreditation and delegate apportionment in the build-up to National General Council (between Q1 and Q2 2021) and, more importantly, the December 2022 national (elective) conference, his next major risk moment. The creation of ghost members and parallel branches is likely to begin soon, with provincial, regional and local power brokers keen to exploit their leverage in 2022 and influence conference outcomes.

We know by now that Ramaphosa is mostly risk-averse, so it seems more probable that institutional action will occur later rather than sooner, if and when Magashule has been sentenced by a court (lending decisive weight to his removal).

However, there could be a window for Ramaphosa to act immediately if he feels he has enough NEC support – but pushing through the removal of a sitting Secretary General would likely raise serious concerns of organizational instability from across the NEC. Ace has far fewer friends in high places now than he did 2 years ago, and allies will be quick to jump ship if given the right incentives – but still, we do not think the CR faction feels confident enough to follow this route now.

(Remember the NGC in 2006 forced Mbeki to back down from his dismissal of Zuma as Deputy President. Zuma and his allies were able to spin the implicit victimhood into a successful bid for the presidency. The big difference is that CR never fiddled with the prosecution process, but instead improved the damaged institutions and leadership of the NPA, SIU, Asset Forfeiture Unit, Crime Intelligence and let the process take its course, while Mbeki clearly intervened and corrupted the prosecutorial process.)

Who replaces him?- 

Presuming Magashule is successfully removed, Ramaphosa’s second headache would be his replacement. Procedurally, Jesse Duarte would step in to Magashule’s role on an acting basis – as Cheryl Carolus did when Ramaphosa resigned this position in 1997. Duarte, while by no means a Ramaphosa ally, is probably willing to toe the line sufficiently, and would also represent some kind of “factional management”, placating anti-Ramaphosa forces without properly surrendering any power to them, and possibly mitigating the chances of a splinter group. This is our most likely scenario.

But if Magashule is gone, Ramaphosa’s opponents will be historically weak, and he may gamble to push a different candidate through the NEC, which would strengthen his grip on the party. Gwede Mantashe seems the most obvious choice, as Ramaphosa’s most politically powerful and closest ally, and a 10-year holder of the position, although the nuclear and gas sectors may regret his resignation as a minister – and we don’t think he can be spared right now.

Senzo Mchunu could also take the office he thought he had won as supporters carried him to the stage at Nasrec, although he is the midst of a bruising and vital battle on the public sector wage bill with unions, and seems to have been entrusted with pushing through the wage freeze announced in the 2020 MTBPS.  He is probably not available for the job right now, but might be after 2022.

Ramaphosa may find another “unity” candidate  which placates enough of the NEC to be viable. In all cases, Ramaphosa will be balancing increasing his strength in the party with the need to manage factional discontent.

* Written with my esteemed colleague in Nic Borain Advisory, Laurent Balt.

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