The Ramaphosa vs Magashule Sumo wrestling match has now been grinding along for five months, with neither man willing to take the risks entailed in going for outright victory. To compound our ennui, the slow-mo, stomach-bumping antics of the ANC’s two top heavyweights has just gone into extra time.
There’s at least another month or more of the same ahead, which might extend to another year of appeals, counter-appeals, and assorted delaying tactics. At stake is pole position for the 2022 ANC leadership congress, where President Cyril Ramaphosa will either be reaffirmed as party leader or face an ignominious defeat.
In the meanwhile, South Africa drifts, essentially rudderless under a distracted leadership, as the African National Congress factions grapple clumsily for advantage.
Last weekend, the normal two-day national executive committee (NEC) meeting went into two days of extra time. Not over how to best knot the fraying edges of a rapidly unravelling society, but on whether its secretary-general should obey party regulations and step down until R234m of criminal charges are decided.
After four days of angry exchanges, the NEC delivered the obvious ruling on Magashule: Any ANC office-bearer facing criminal charges must step aside within 30 days, failing which they will be suspended.
That’s the same decision as taken by the NEC in August last year. The same decision as that taken by the ANC’s Integrity Commission in December and with which Magashule then said he would comply. The same decision, in essence, as the one that has been part of the ANC’s regulations — and civilised norms worldwide — for aeons.
What was new and a potential game changer, though, was the NEC’s decision on former president Jacob Zuma’s guerrilla force within the ANC, the Radical Economic Transformation grouping. The NEC acted with unusual boldness: “No ANC member should associate themselves with or be involved in the so-called ‘RET Forces’. Furthermore, the NEC will not allow any member of the ANC staff to use the resources and premises of the ANC to hold meetings of the RET or any other faction.”
The decision on the RET as an entity is far more important than sidelining Magashule. Magashule, after all, may simply be replaced by another RET mouthpiece, such as deputy, Jessie Duarte. But to prohibit ANC members from associating or assisting the RET faction is, if enforced, a potentially lethal blow to the ambitions of the Zuma axis to regain control of the ANC.
At a stroke, it delegitimises RET. It’s no longer about the rote contestation over policy that exists in any political organisation and is part of a necessary process of adaptation and renewal. It’s now about no longer giving any oxygen to what the NEC labels “RET forces”, with all the connotations of enemy malevolence that the phrase implies.
As a minor blessing, it will mean that the likes of Zuma’s pet white man, Carl Niehaus, at present sequestered in a Luthuli House office and producing screeds of jargon-laden RET propaganda and improbable battle plans to protect Zuma from arrest, will have to close shop. Most importantly, it means that any attempts to salt ANC membership rolls and leadership conference delegate lists with RET subversives is going to become more difficult, risking suspension and expulsion.
The imponderable in all of this is the disposition of Ramaphosa. Until now, as I have argued with tedious monotony, he has been cautious to the point of pusillanimity. Over the past two-and-a-half years, his major focus has been his personal survival within a united ANC, while South Africa’s national interests have languished on the periphery of his attention.
But the NEC meeting has now left him in a uniquely powerful position if he dares to act forcefully. Whether it be through canniness or chance, he has in hand the instruments required to avoid the party split that he fears, instead excising the RET as though it were an inconsequential appendix.
As for the RET’s threat of its members resigning “en masse”, that smacks of desperation and would play right into the reformist's hands. As Zuma delighted in warning the young firebrands who left the ANC to join Julius Malema in the Economic Freedom Fighters, “it’s cold outside the ANC”.
The response of ANC voices within the media has been instructive. In her column on News24, Melanie Verwoerd describes the NEC outcomes as an “epic victory” for the “master strategist” Ramaphosa, confirming that his “patience and inclusive leadership style bears fruit. He rarely takes on battles that he can't win. When he does pick up the political sword, he ensures victory through carefully and creatively crafted manoeuvres.”
More realistic is the assessment of a former ministerial media adviser, Sam Mkokeli, in a BusinessLive analysis. He argues that Magashule has had an exaggerated stature in the party because the Ramaphosa camp — “as a result of its own mediocrity” — has struggled to assert itself and give meaning to the New Dawn mantra.
“We need to look deeper than just the two camps in the ANC and see the dysfunction of the governing party as a whole, and how that affects the nation,” writes Mkokeli, counselling against unrealistic expectations.
“The president's failure to introduce new politics even in his own camp suggests that the painful lack of direction we have experienced during his honeymoon will still define his first term and, most likely, thereafter. Failure to conquer the contours of the opposite camp beyond just Magashule … will eventually manifest and undermine any gains from the war with Magashule.”
Ramaphosa is poised for a rare victory if he succeeds in bumping Magashule out the ring. But that’s just the first battle of a series, for the ANC is riddled with RET figures who undermine the president at every turn.
The most important challenge is beyond ridding himself of thorns in the flesh. It will be for Ramaphosa urgently to start implementing a coherent, pragmatic raft of policies that are not — as they have been until now — essentially RET nuttiness, prettied up with some lipstick.
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