As the ANC’s National Executive Committee (NEC) prepares to meet in 10 days’ time, it is clear that the dominating dynamic in the governing party is whether or not Ace Magashule will step aside as its secretary-general.
This issue is likely to inflame passions and divisions within the ANC. However, this is not a binary matter – it is about much more than simply deciding whether he stays or he goes. Either way, the scene is being set for the ANC to end next year, 2021, even more battered than it is now.
On Sunday the City Press newspaper reported that Magashule’s personal assistant denied that she had agreed to turn State witness against him.
The announcement by prosecutors during Magashule’s court appearance that she was going to give evidence was a major development as it appeared to signal that he was not going to find an easy way out of the criminal charges.
The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) later on Sunday denied the accuracy of the City Press story.
For Magashule’s critics and the NPA two critical developments need to happen.
The first is that the criminal trial must actually start. Magashule’s reputation and image will suffer greatly from him appearing in court day after day, while witnesses explain how his actions siphoned the money that was supposed to help the poorest of the poor into the hands of his chosen elite.
And then the trial must be quick and prosecutors must emerge victorious. If they don’t, the legitimacy of the NPA will suffer terrible damage, greatly undermining its ability to prosecute other cases.
However, the political dynamics around Magashule are getting close to what may be a false climax.
The ANC’s chairperson, Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe, told the Sunday Times that the party had received a legal opinion that it cannot force someone to step aside. He was quoted as saying:
“There’s clarity that stepping aside is a voluntary act, it’s a function of consciousness and awareness, it is not an organisational compulsion. Once it is compulsion it becomes something different called suspension.”
This legal opinion must be correct. If someone is elected to an ANC position at an electoral conference by delegates, only those same delegates can remove them.
We imbibe and peddle conspiracies about leaders and each other. The media and opposition are feasting and having a field day on these activities.
However, Mantashe also said: “So, if you don’t [step aside] and the organisation feels strongly, they can take other avenues in the organisation and those avenues are there.” This is, presumably, a reference to the party’s Integrity Commission and its National Disciplinary Committee.
While this may be a sign that some in the party are willing to go the distance to force Magashule to step aside, his refusal to do so under these circumstances will make for a long and protracted fight.
The ANC’s machinery to deal with problems such as this is not up to the task.
The Integrity Commission can take a long time to deal with complex issues, and has been ignored in the past. It took many months to emerge that Deputy President David Mabuza had not been cleared by the commission as had been claimed before he took office.
Also in the Sunday Times, the head of the ANC’s presidency, Sibongile Besani, published an opinion piece in which he wrote about the need for the party to change its culture. He suggested:
“We imbibe and peddle conspiracies about leaders and each other. The media and opposition are feasting and having a field day on these activities.”
This gets to the heart of the matter, that the problems in the party are so deep that they cannot easily be repaired. For some, repair may even appear impossible.
In the end, this is about politics, power and money. If, for example, the entire NEC were to vote that Magashule or another official must leave their office, it would seem impossible for them to remain in any functioning capacity.
However, the dynamic is not just about whether Magashule will “step aside”, but about the real levels of power between him, President Cyril Ramaphosa and other groupings in the ANC. It is also about the ANC’s ability to function as a cohesive political unit with central political authority.
In normal times, the ANC would now be preparing for the mass event that is the January 8th Statement. It would involve a stadium and thousands of ANC members. While it is not clear yet what form this will take in 2021, because of the pandemic, it would seem almost impossible for the event to go off without political incident.
What will happen when Magashule is announced at the stadium? Or Ramaphosa? Will there be cheering, jeering or booing? If Magashule were not there, how would that play out?
The ANC is now so dogged by infighting that it may be unable to function, no matter whether Magashule stays or goes.
This will only get worse in the run-up to the local government elections.
The ANC’s members and leaders will campaign, after a year in which the party’s members and leaders have been accused of corruption during the pandemic, the worst of crimes. Its secretary-general may be in office and facing trial.
But more complex than all of that is the difficult process of drawing up lists for positions in municipalities.
In 2016, when Jacob Zuma was still in power, arguments over list positions nearly tore the party in Tshwane apart. Violent protests over positions saw two pro-Zuma factions of the ANC in that region pitted against each other.
Next year a secretary-general who lacks legitimacy will have to pilot the party through the same process, when the competition for positions in councils will never have been higher.
The danger for chaos and violence cannot be overstated.
Magashule has said repeatedly he will not step aside. The NEC is divided on the issue and is unlikely to come to any clean decision quickly. Everything will be dominated by that dynamic.
While 2020 has been the most terrible year for almost everyone, it may be that 2021 is actually more definitive for the future of South Africa. One thing is certain – it will not be an easy year.