Cornered RET

This piece was written jointly with my colleague Laurent Balt.

So where to now for Ace Magashule, and what future for the RET forces?

The state of the RET

Unpacking the health of an ANC faction nowadays is tricky business, in that they are generally not factions in the traditional political meaning, but rather loose coalitions defined by common and shifting interests, and seldom with particular ideological cohesion. Ideology is mostly used as an instrument to differentiate or pressurise opposing factions.

The case in point is the RET, which is cohered by the dire consequences of its fragmenting (fragmented) hold over the ANC. It is now all about fighting to avoid punishment for individual members while desperately throwing up flak and beating drums to distract attention.

Its 3 most visible (or at least present in the public mind) players are all in legal trouble: Magashule faces a corruption trial in August and a hostile NEC, Zuma is locked in a personal battle with the Zondo Commission and a trail of other legal woes too exhausting to trace, and Busisiwe Mkhwebane is probably on her way out.

The other political centres of power aligned with Magashule have been conspicuously quiet since the NEC decision. ANC structures have cracked the whip on official expressions of support for Magashule. And Magashule’s provincial support base (still evident in some Free State RECs) has been damaged by the dissolution of the ANC provincial executive by the Supreme Court of Appeals.

The balance of power in the NEC also seems to have shifted towards Ramaphosa. In the most recent meeting, Ramaphosa won almost all of the battles, getting his preferred candidates deployed to the NWC and the Youth League Task Team. Attempts to collapse the meeting by Magashule’s supporters are best read in terms of a lack of alternative strategies. Alleged threats of mass resignation had little credibility. Our understanding of the ANC Constitution is that a majority of the NEC would have to vote in favour of or resign to trigger a special national conference – a bar too high for the RET, we think.

So, what next for Magashule? Lobbying managed to secure him a month to “consult”. He intends to talk to party elders – Zuma, Mbeki, Motlanthe and Mathews Phosa. The latter 3 are all likely to tell him to comply with the ruling, and the former’s relevance to internal ANC politics is now in doubt.

Magashule clearly intends to force Ramaphosa to remove him via suspension. He will want to use the remaining 19 days (as of today) to convince enough political constituencies that his removal as SG will be damaging to their interests. This will be a tall task: Ramaphosa has been consistently focused on inclusion of as many political elites as possible in the upper echelons of state and party power. He (CR) can promise defectors far more than Ace can, and has made the downsides of his presidency for groups not aligned with him fairly limited. Only groups or individuals threatened with the same fate as Magashule (including Zandile Gumede, Mike Mabuyakhulu and Bongani Bongo) and potentially those who fear the same in the future have much incentive to align behind him. For most, however, there is a far greater incentive to marginalise Ace, both in terms of aligning with the faction in power, as well as opening up the SG position in 2022 and getting rid of potential challengers.

Three weeks is long enough for something to change that could alter Magashule’s fortunes. He is likely to keep some powder dry for the period immediately preceding what will probably be his suspension by the NEC, and not his own decision to step aside. It is, however, difficult to envision a situation where the RET camp continues to be Ramaphosa’s major internal opposition.

What next for Ramaphosa?

Ramaphosa’s handling of the political moment ensuing if/when Magashule is suspended is critical to his future. He has two contradictory imperatives: he will want to gain a more decisive grip on the party, but must also be careful to limit the damage he doles out to his political opponents. Pushing through the step-aside decisions included in the Integrity Commission reports passed at the 28th March NEC meeting will improve perceptions of ANC institutional strength and get rid of some of Ramaphosa’s most vocal opponents. But most of these opponents, Ace included, have relatively limited and provincially defined bases of support. Ramaphosa will want to be more cautious and conservative in marginalising major national-level elites (although the he paired back the influence of many Zuma-era national networks in the May 2019 cabinet reshuffle).

Ramaphosa also has a balancing act to do in consolidating his own support base. The SACP has proven a reliable ally, but pushing through a public-sector wage freeze cannot but damage his standing with COSATU (although it is currently is not being courted meaningfully by other elites and is historically weak). For Cosatu, the Ramaphosa ANC is the only show in town, and it is no surprise to us that Cosatu announced yesterday that it will support the ANC in local government elections this year – implying that at least one of the reasons was to ensure that the “wrong” groups (read RET) didn’t find a way back to power in the party in Cosatu’s absence.

Government, Ramaphosa and the ANC are vulnerable to the social pressures building up in all key constituencies as a result of economic hardship and the extremely limited fiscal space. It is a natural path of attack for the RET, which has already attempted to deepen the fissure between government and tertiary students struggling to for access to funds to study.

It is probably a sign of RET weakness that it has been unable to capitalize significantly on the narrowing fiscal space government faces. Social pressures will continue to mount as budget cuts and stagnant growth impact on quality of life. Fiscal consolidation is unavoidable, but it seems to us that making both public sector unions and the poor and unemployed feel the pain simultaneously is a dangerous strategy (with freezing of both wages and social grants), and one it is in Ramaphosa’s interests to soften as soon as the space becomes available.

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