Is Ace's goose cooked?

Theuns Eloff assesses the space the ANC SG still has to further delay his defenestration

The dust (and shouting) has finally settled after the ANC’s NEC meeting the week before last. The fact that it had to be resumed on the Monday, shows that it was a difficult and tumultuous meeting. Commentators agree that the decisions taken indicate a resounding victory for President Cyril Ramaphosa and his supporters.

Melanie Verwoerd, former ANC-MP and ambassador, last week even wrote that the score after the meeting was Ramaphosa group 7, RET faction 0.

The winning goals that Verwoerd listed were the strong support for the Zondo commission, the support of the ANC parliamentary caucus for the Mkwebane motion (despite Ace’s contrary advice), the strong critique of the existence of the RET faction, the rejection of the Rupert story in the Independent Group’s newspapers (in typical Bell Pottinger fashion), possible disciplinary action against ANC staff who are trying to divide the ANC (read Carl Niehaus), criticism of the existence of a separate military veteran organisation (the MKMVA), and finally the decision that those who face criminal charges should “stand aside” within 30 days. One can only agree with this analysis.

In addition to these winning goals, a number of other events also boosted the Ramaphosa group:

The decision by the Supreme Court of Appeal to declare the 2018 election of the ANC’s Free State Provincial Executive Committee (with one of Ace’s cronies as chairman) unlawful and unconstitutional, must be a strong setback for Ace & Co.;

The fact that & Co. (clearly against their will) had to conform with the NEC decisions and the fact that they apparently did not push for a vote, is proof that they themselves realised that they did not have the support of the majority in the NEC (anymore);

This was further underscored by the fact that in the NEC meeting the Ramaphosa group’s candidate for a vacancy in the National Working Committee (Gwen Ramakgopa) won the election with 53 votes against 39. The other candidate, backed by the Magashule group, was Ayanda Dlodlo;

The emergence and involvement in the corruption debate of the Defend our Democracy movement, consisting of senior ANC members, but also other independent leaders;

The warnings from within ANC structures (amongst others from the provincial secretary in the Eastern Cape, Lulama Ncukaitobi) that the RET group in the ANC (“the sixth floor of Luthuli House”) is nothing more than a faction that is planning to break away from the ANC and therefore should not be tolerated. This was a fundamental change in the narrative.

Ace & Co. (and especially Carl Niehaus) would dearly have wanted to be seen as the saviours of the ANC that would lead the organisation back to its revolutionary and socialist roots. The consequence of the breakaway narrative was that they were forced to declare their loyalty to the ANC and even to deny the formal existence of the RET faction;

It is significant that former president Thabo Mbeki did not only (again) attend the NEC meeting, but strongly questioned the competency of Magashule to be secretary-general. He went as far as describing Magashule as the worst Secretary-general ever. It is important to note that Mbeki did not merely sing along in the “corrupt Ace” choir, but cast doubt on his ability to be secretary-general. This was clearly part of the “total onslaught” of the Ramaphosa group against Ace & Co. And Mbeki had clearly taken sides.

It is, therefore, clear that the Ramaphosa group is presently on the front foot. The big question, however, is what Ace & Co. will do before, on and after 28 April (when the 30 days had expired)? And what can be expected from the Ramaphosa group (and the President himself)?

Magashule’s options are limited. Even though the 30 days are longer than the seven days in the first draft decision (which Ace disagreed with vehemently), it cannot be used to review or reverse the NEC’s decision. There is a clear deadline: 28 April 2021.

Magashule himself asked for time to consult with senior ANC leaders on his decision (and probably his future). Whether he will receive any sympathy from the likes of Mbeki, Motlanthe or Phosa, is improbable. Zuma may give him some advice on how to drag out political and legal battles indefinitely – the infamous Stalingrad tactic.

Eventually he has only two options: stand aside voluntarily now, or refuse and face expulsion later (after the relevant disciplinary processes). Both these options give Magashule the opportunity to take the NEC decision (stand aside now or be expelled later) on legal review.

He would in both cases probably argue that the decision should not finally be implemented before the court decision is given. This would be in line with his and others known argument that, because the Constitution stipulates that someone is innocent until proven guilty, no disciplinary steps may be taken against any ANC member accused of wrongdoing.

This argument does not take into account that disciplinary steps do not constitute a guilty verdict, but are actually an organisational measure that protects the discipline and ethics in and the good name and reputation of an organisation.

Our courts are usually hesitant to interfere in the internal matters of voluntary organisations, and the core question would be: had the ANC’s own rules and processes been followed? And even if it seems to be the case in this instance, it will take time to get a court decision. And even that decision could be taken to a higher court on appeal.

With both of these options Magashule will buy himself precious time to fight other political battles. If he can remain secretary-general until the ANC National General Council takes place before the end of the year (probably not before September), he will be able use that platform and power effectively. The date for the next appearance in his fraud case is in August in Gauteng – but it would probably (for various reasons) be postponed again.

It will also be in Magashule’s interest to buy time to organise at organisational level and mobilize ANC branches to come to his defence – this is a declared tactic. He is hoping that a sizable number of branches would “force” the NEC to reverse the stand aside/expulsion decision. What counts against him in this regard, is the fact that Court of Appeal has all but destroyed his power base in the Free State (at least for the moment). Secondly, the decision to stand aside is not only applicable to Magashule, but to numerous ANC members and officials.

It would prove difficult for branches to demand that he alone be exempted from the decision. And a demand that the decision should be withdrawn in totality will not fly, especially in the face of the strong anti-corruption stance of the NEC at present.

Finally, it would be in Magashule’s interest to buy time in order not to be left in the cold outside the ANC, because he is hoping that the documents of President Ramaphosa’s election campaign (the so called CR-17), would be made public soon and that their contents would damage Ramaphosa and his supporters and benefit him.

If one considers Magashule’s actions and attitude thus far, it is unlikely that he will stand aside voluntarily. He is going to challenge the ANC to subject him to disciplinary procedures (just like Zuma) – because it would give him more time to mobilise; and because he can then take those decisions on legal review.

It is therefore too early to say that Ace Magashule’s goose is cooked. If he refuses to stand aside, however, a long and extended political and legal battle lies ahead. In this process he may perhaps lose his remaining support in the ANC. This option is therefore not without risk.

If this likely scenario plays out, the Ramaphosa group will not be rid of Ace Magashule after 28 April. Disciplinary processes will have to be instituted for him (and others) and answering legal affidavits will have to be prepared. And the atmosphere in Luthuli House and during NEC meetings will not improve.

Finally: in the unlikely event that Magashule does stand aside voluntarily on 28 April, it is interesting to consider what President Ramaphosa and the NEC would do. A first decision would be to appoint an acting secretary-general. This could be either Jessie Duarte, or a Ramaphosa supporter from outside – perhaps from Kwazulu-Natal, which does not have a representative in the top six at present.

This would enhance the Ramaphosa group’s influence in Luthuli House immediately, and a cleaning out process of some Ace-loyalists (read amongst others Bathabile Dlamini and Carl Niehaus) is not impossible. As president of the country, Ramaphosa could also see this as an opportune moment to look afresh at his cabinet, by getting rid of Magashule loyalists and to bind in other (still wavering) supporters. It could be the start of a political turn-around process. But it would take much longer to turn around the incapable, incompetent and often corrupt civil service at national, provincial and municipal level.

According to media reports over the past weekend, President Cyril Ramaphosa said that a torn ANC would be of no use to the country. He heard the image of a torn garment from a sermon during an Easter service, and applied it to the ANC (something I am sure the pastor did not intend)!

The real question is whether a torn ANC is not exactly what the country needs? Because, as much as it is too early to say that (next to Zuma) the biggest symbol of corruption’s goose is cooked, it is too early to say if an untorn and unsplit ANC would be able to self-correct.

Theuns Eloff is an independent commentator. This article first appeared on Netwerk24.