The ANC’s internecine factional battles moved into open conflict on 5 May after the party’s Secretary-General rejected his own suspension and claimed to have suspended President Cyril Ramaphosa instead.
The matter follows the 29 March decision by the African National Congress (ANC) National Executive Committee (NEC) that any member charged with corruption or a serious criminal offence must “step aside” from any offices or positions or face suspension. This was in line with a resolution decided at the party’s National Elective Conference in December 2017. The debate over the step-aside resolution has focused on Magashule, as the Secretary-General was arrested in November 2020 and charged with 21 counts of fraud and corruption. Accordingly, should the resolution be implemented, Magashule would be forced to step aside as Secretary-General. Notably, the NEC’s decision mandates that those accused of corruption cease acting on behalf of the party and performing their duties, but does not insist that they relinquish their positions. Office bearers, such as Magashule, would still retain their title, salary, and privileges. However, Magashule would lose access to the power and influence of the Secretary-General’s office. This is unacceptable to him as this influence is essential to his and the so-called radical economic transformation (RET) faction’s plans to remove Ramaphosa as president and restore their control over the ANC. Magashule is also dependent on his political power to help prevent his successful prosecution and imprisonment.
The showdown over the step-aside resolution came to a head on 29 March when Magashule and his allies lost their efforts to prevent the resolution being enforced or to expand the criteria to include whoever had been accused of corruption regales of how nebulous the accusations were. This would essentially render the resolution useless and unenforceable. Magashule was given a final lifeline – all those accused had 30 days to step aside or face suspension. This deadline expired on 28 April. However, the ANC waited until after the party’s National Working Committee (NWC) met over the weekend of 1 and 2 May. The NWC is tasked with implementing the NEC’s actions and was previously thought to be more sympathetic to Magashule. However, the NWC reiterated its support for the NEC’s 29 March decision and empowered Deputy Secretary-General Jessie Duarte to suspend all corruption-accused members who were identified as having failed to comply with the step aside resolution. To this end, Duarte wrote to and informed Magashule of his immediate suspension as ANC Secretary-General.
As expected, Magashule openly refused to step down and penned a letter rejecting Duarte’s authority to suspend him and, in turn, claiming that he had written to and suspended Ramaphosa as ANC President due to unproven allegations of vote buying ahead of the ANC December elective conference. It should be noted that despite multiple media reports and Public Protector investigations no viable evidence of this has been revealed. It should also be noted that even if he had not been suspended on 3 May, Magashule would not have the authority to suspend Ramaphosa as only the NEC, NWC, and National Disciplinary Committee (NDC) have the power to suspend the party president.
Magashule’s open defiance and attempts to suspend Ramaphosa have emphatically forced the long-simmering factional battles into open conflict. However, the suspended Secretary-General appears to have misjudged his levels of support and acted rashly. The initial confusion expressed by the ANC’s senior members and communications office in response to Magashule’s 5 May statements suggested that he did not inform party members or even potential allies before going public with his defiance. This led to the ANC releasing a terse statement confirming Magashule’s suspension and encouraging him to adhere to the party’s instructions. ANC Chairperson Gwede Mantashe was more forthright, accusing Magashule of deliberately seeking to sow confusion and division within the ANC.
The ANC’s top officials are expected to meet on 6 May to discuss the matter which is also expected to dominate the next NEC meeting on 8 and 9 May. It is currently unclear if Magashule will be permitted to attend these meetings.
Magashule’s response clearly indicates that he has run out of options and is acting in desperation. His public defiance of both the NEC and NWC will alienate possible sympathisers and even allies. The NEC will have little choice but to vocally back its 29 March resolution and put on a united front, essentially casting Magashule as a divisive opponent of the party. Should Magashule continue to maintain his position he could likely be referred to the NDC, where he could potentially face expulsion. Magashule has also been exposed as lacking the levels of support he claimed and many of his erstwhile allies will abandon him in efforts to salvage their own political careers. He will be predominantly left with political dead-enders and other members who have or are facing suspension under the step-aside resolution.
However, Magashule is a wily political operator and will not go quietly. He will likely embark on a disinformation campaign leaking secrets and statements to friendly media outlets such as Independent Media (IOL) as well as using online supporters and fake social media accounts. This is a strategy repeatedly deployed by the RET faction. Yet, Magashule’s options are limited, and his rash actions will have cost him much-needed support within the party, risking expulsion and potentially ending any chance of a reversal when the suspension is reviewed in six months. Notably, by then, his trial would have begun. As it stands, the question is less about whether Magashule will be able to reverse his suspension and more about how much damage he will cause on his way out.
Ramaphosa will undoubtedly be the biggest victor in this saga. Magashule is his most significant rival, and his suspension and possible removal will bolster Ramaphosa’s efforts to shore up support within the party. It will also mean that the RET faction and Magashule will have limited control over the branch audit ahead of the next elective conference in 2022. This will prevent Ramaphosa’s enemies from being able to influence which delegates attend the conference in a bid to derail his re-election bid.
In addition, ever since former president Jacob Zuma was forced out as president, Magashule has become the face of corruption within the ANC. His suspension is a major victory for Ramaphosa’s reform efforts and corruption fighting campaign. It also will make voters more amenable to the ANC’s message that it has turned the corner and is addressing corruption within its ranks and in government. Magashule’s unsuccessful fightback will ensure that this matter and Ramaphosa receive favourable media attention, especially in urban areas. This will be a boost to the party ahead of the local government elections (LGE) in October when the ANC is hoping to reverse its poor 2016 results.