It was a showdown more than three years in the making. Escalating tensions in South Africa’s ruling African National Congress finally came to a head on Wednesday when its secretary-general Ace Magashule was informed by his deputy, Jessie Duarte, that he’d been suspended pending his trial on graft charges.
Magashule hit back hours later, insisting that he wasn’t going anywhere and notifying party leader and president Cyril Ramaphosa that he was the one being suspended for violating campaign funding rules.
While the bizarre standoff could ultimately end up in court, Ramaphosa clearly has the upper hand. The president has the backing of most members of the ANC’s National Executive Committee, or NEC, which calls the shots in the party and has unequivocally stated that all officials facing prosecution will have their membership revoked if they refuse to quit their posts.
“Ace is finished,” said Joanmariae Fubbs, a veteran ANC member and former lawmaker, said by phone from Johannesburg. “His so-called lieutenants who always have supported him have seen which way the political wind is blowing and are deserting him.”
An NEC meeting scheduled for this weekend should provide clarity on how much residual support Magashule and his allies retain within its ranks. Its expected confirmation of his suspension will boost Ramaphosa’s prospects of wining a second term as ANC leader next year and extending his presidency for another five years in 2024.
Magashule, 61, stands accused of corruption, fraud and money-laundering relating to an audit contract issued while he was premier of the central Free State province, and his trial is due to resume in August. He denies wrongdoing.
While Ramaphosa, 68, is fighting a lawsuit aimed at forcing him to disclose who paid for his campaign to win control of the ANC, he hasn’t been prosecuted and there is no party provision for Magashule to unilaterally discipline him.
Ramaphosa, who’s trying to attract billions of dollars in new investment to rebuild an economy battered by the coronavirus, has identified the fight against graft as a top priority. His efforts have been undermined by Magashule, who has emphasized the need to distribute land and wealth to the black majority and nationalize the central bank.
The news of Magashule’s suspension has buoyed the financial markets, with the rand rising for a second day against the dollar on Thursday.
The power play dates back to December 2017, when more than 4,000 ANC representatives gathered at the Nasrec conference center in Soweto near Johannesburg to choose a replacement for Jacob Zuma, who was stepping down as party leader after two terms.
Zuma threw his backing behind his ex-wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a veteran politician in her own right. But Ramaphosa, a lawyer who founded the National Union of Mineworkers, led the negotiations to end apartheid and then accumulated a fortune after founding his own investment company, ultimately emerged as the winner with 52% of the vote.
His victory was somewhat tainted because Zuma allies secured several other leadership posts. Magashule’s razor-thin win over Senzo Mchunu — now the public service minister — in the race for secretary-general was particularly galling because whoever fills the post has control over the day-to-day running of the ANC and has the potential to influence who gets to vote in future leadership contests.
Zuma’s scandal-marred nine-year rule had caused the ANC to hemorrhage support and it forced him to quit in February 2018 under threat of impeachment. Ramaphosa replaced him and set about purging most Zuma allies from the cabinet and removing the heads of the National Prosecuting Agency, South African Revenue Service and other key state institutions.
But the new president struggled to exert his authority over the NEC, which was directly elected by the ANC delegates. It included a large contingent of Zuma loyalists loosely coalesced around Magashule that was dubbed the radical economic transformation faction.
Magashule repeatedly undermined Ramaphosa, refusing to credit him for the party’s resounding 2019 election victory and contradicting several of his policy pronouncements. Leaked accounts of NEC meetings indicated the rival actions were constantly at each others’ throats. Magashule often delivered statements about the panel’s deliberations that other members contradicted.
The first indication that Ramaphosa was gaining the upper hand came in last July, when he took over the communication of the NEC’s decisions. Then the panel announced that it would implement a resolution the ANC had adopted at its 2017 conference to force officials to step down or be suspended.
After Magashule was charged in November, the ANC’s ethics committee recommended that he should quit or have his membership withdrawn. His fate was sealed at a March meeting of the NEC, which gave him 30 days to vacate his post. He refused, triggering his suspension, which will be reviewed every six months.
Several other Ramaphosa foes are also in the firing line, including Bongani Bongo, who served as Zuma’s state security minister and is facing graft charges. He denies wrongdoing.
Zuma’s legal travails have further strengthened Ramaphosa’s grip.
The nation’s top court is currently deciding whether to jail the former president for defying its order to testify before a judicial panel that’s investigating graft during his presidency. He’s also set to face trial on May 17 on charges that he took bribes from arms dealers in the 1990s.