Jump to navigation

Vol 62 No 10

Published 13th May 2021

South Africa

Magashule overplays his hand

After sidelining his main rival, President Ramaphosa has to take tough decisions on state companies, energy policy and jobs

There was no hint of triumphalism in Cyril Ramaphosa's measured speech on 10 May at the end of a dramatic three-day National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting that saw his main opponent within the African National Congress, Secretary-General Ace Magashule, seal his own demise.

But even as his adversary's support melts away, the President has a tough road ahead to deliver the economic reforms needed to sustain the power shift and to deliver on his promises of 'unity and renewal' in the party so that other factions do not fill the vacuum left by Magashule.

Magashule's suspension signals a major setback for the faction loyal to former president Jacob Zuma which has consistently frustrated Ramaphosa's efforts to end corruption, revive the economy and renew the ruling party (AC Vol 62 No 8, The state capturers fight back).

It was a seminal moment in the ANC's fortunes. The removal of the official who effectively runs the party in such an abrupt way is unprecedented in its 109-year history.

According to insiders at the NEC meeting, senior officials called for a special three-day conference to heal the deep divisions and 'hatred' which were preventing the party from dealing with vital service delivery, job creation and pandemic vaccinations amid a growing economic crisis (AC Vol 62 No 3, Shot in the dark).

Ramaphosa looked deadly serious as he described Magashule's conduct in trying to suspend him without a mandate from any party structure as 'completely unacceptable and a flagrant violation of the rules, norms and values of the ANC'.

Now Magashule must apologise or face a disciplinary hearing which could lead to his expulsion if he is found to have brought the party into disrepute.

His other options are to appeal to a special panel made up of veteran party loyalists or go to court to argue that the step-aside rule conflicts with the constitutional right to be deemed innocent until proved guilty.

Africa Confidential hears that ANC National Treasurer-General Paul Mashatile, a sometime Ramaphosa supporter who could yet emerge as a challenger, has submitted an internal report calling for 50% job cuts at party headquarters as officials struggle to pay salaries (AC Vol 62 No 2, Cyril and Ace's linked fates).

As the looting of state funds has become more difficult under Ramaphosa, so the political power of the increasingly desperate patronage faction has waned, analysts say.

Magashule, the second most powerful ANC official, found himself shut out of an online meeting of the ANC executive after he shocked his dwindling support base with his attempted suspension of President Ramaphosa in a bid to hold on to power.

Instead Magashule, facing multiple corruption charges, sealed his own suspension. Magashule had consistently defied a party directive requiring those charged with criminal offences to stand aside from their posts and party activities until the resolution of their court cases (AC Vol 62 No 7, Ramaphosa rallies ANC against the Zuma-Magashule axis). 

The business community, investors, civil society and much of the public breathed a sigh of relief that Magashule had been suspended, but some expressed doubt as to whether vital reforms, particularly in the energy sector, would follow in time to prevent an economic meltdown in the next two years.

Ramaphosa has proved himself to be an incrementalist, and even some of his supporters chide him for being too timid and too slow. But the demise of Magashule could be a game-changer.

'Ramaphosa's process-driven approach has been vindicated as he has gradually consolidated his leadership and isolated corrupt officials,' said a presidential advisor.

Ramaphosa has strengthened the courts and state institutions by putting them at the forefront of his campaign (AC Vol 61 No 20, This time, it's personal).

In his address at the end of the NEC meeting, Ramaphosa noted that there was a concerted campaign 'to sow division and confusion' within the party and said it had been agreed to hold a leadership retreat to forge unity.

He said the campaign was 'actively aided by a few individuals from within the NEC, through leaks, deviant public pronouncements, protests and misinformation on social media'. Stories emerged throughout the meeting, including an audio clip of former President Thabo Mbeki expressing concerns about the collapse of the party and asking 'Do we still have any organisation called the ANC?'

Magashule has been suspended on full pay along with some 30 other officials including former State Security Minister Bongani Bongo, who faces corruption charges and heads a parliamentary committee. 

Very few charged officials have stepped aside from their posts and several in KwaZulu-Natal province, where 13 officials face possible suspension on a variety of criminal charges, have called for a special conference to resolve the step-down rule.

The first official to step down voluntarily ahead of the 30-day deadline was ANC deputy chair Mike Mabuyakhulu, a Ramaphosa supporter, followed by a mayor in North West province, Kgotso Khumalo.

But former Mayor of eThekwini (Durban) Zandile Gumede and a group of councillors implicated in corruption have refused to stand down.

Several senior ANC officials have been implicated in corruption but not yet charged, including former ministers Nomvula Mokonyane, Mosebenzi Zwane,  Malusi Gigaba, David Mahlobo and serving minister Siyabonga Cwele (see Box, Team Cyril wins out). At the three-day meeting Mokonyane appeared to throw her weight behind Ramaphosa after long being identified as a Zuma loyalist.

The main backlash against Magashule's suspension came from some 68 branches in Zuma's home province of KwaZulu-Natal, and in North West where former party chair Supra Mahumapelo was suspended last month.

But it is clear that support for Magashule has peeled away rapidly since his bid to suspend Ramaphosa. Once-vocal Zuma stalwarts such as Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association (MKMVA) leader Kebby Maphatsoe and Ekurhuleni Mayor Mzwandile Masina have fallen silent.

There have been growing signs of the changing voting landscape within the party, starting in March when it split on a parliamentary vote to investigate pro-Zuma Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane, with 171 ANC MPs backing the impeachment probe and 59 abstaining (AC Vol 62 No 6, The plot against Cyril). 

Africa Confidential hears Magashule garnered only 20 votes against the step-aside directive and deadline at the 26-28 March executive meeting, with 86 in favour of the ultimatum. And when a vote was held earlier for a vacancy on the NEC, pro-Ramaphosa Gwen Ramokgopa won with 53 votes to 36 for the Magashule-backed State Security Minister Ayanda Dlodlo.

It is clear that the glue that kept the ANC together for 26 years in power is losing its potency.

Magashule's suspension was conveyed in a letter from his deputy, Jessie Duarte, following a meeting of the ANC's 20-strong National Working Committee on 3 May. But in his written response, he insisted he was still in charge and countered by unilaterally suspending Ramaphosa until alleged wrongdoing relating to the sources and non-disclosure of the President's campaign funds was resolved. Africa Confidential hears that Magashule was advised by Zuma to reject the suspension and pursue an obstructionist strategy to bring Ramaphosa down. Ramaphosa was reprimanded by the ANC's Integrity Commission in January for resorting to legal technicalities to avoid answering questions about his campaign funds.

Magashule's letter angered many in the 8 May NEC meeting and, even though he had attended the virtual meeting of the ANC's 'top six' officials earlier, he found his log-in details had been removed when he tried to join the executive meeting.

Magashule's suspension reduces the ANC's leadership to the 'top five' with Duarte now Acting Secretary-General.

Magashule, whose trial is due to begin in August, plans to appeal against his suspension, which was endorsed by the ANC's top decision-making bodies following a painstaking process driven by Ramaphosa over the past three years.

In stark contrast, his attempt to suspend Ramaphosa was roundly rejected.

Africa Confidential hears that Ramaphosa and party chair Gwede Mantashe ridiculed Magashule's attempt to suspend the President in the closed meeting of the parliamentary caucus. There were no dissenting voices, insiders said.

In his closing speech to the conference, Ramaphosa addressed the damage inflicted on the ANC by constant infighting and predictions of its collapse. 'For as long as we are divided as a leadership, for as long as we fail to act against corruption and unless we put the needs of people first, we will struggle to restore the credibility of the ANC,' Ramaphosa said.

Team Cyril wins out

Business, community and civil society leaders, the political class and the judiciary threw their weight behind President Cyril Ramaphosa's efforts to reform the African National Congress (ANC) resulting in a win over the faction led by suspended Secretary-General Ace Magashule and former President Jacob Zuma. Here are the key players in the team:



Ministerial allies are: Tito Mboweni, Finance; Pravin Gordhan, Public Enterprises; Ronald Lamola, Justice and Correctional Services; Senzo Mchunu, Public Service and Administration; Naledi Pandor, International Relations and Cooperation; Thokozile Didiza, Agriculture Land Reform and Rural Development; Barbara Creecy, Environment, Forestry and Fisheries; Zizi Kodwa, Deputy State Security; and Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, Small Business Development.

The younger generation represented by Lamola, Mchunu, Didiza and Kodwa are in line for promotion within the party and government in the run-up to the ANC's National Elective Congress in December 2022 and beyond. Ramaphosa is set to make some cabinet changes ahead of local elections in October to replace Jackson Mthembu, Minister in the Presidency, who died after contracting Covid-19 earlier this year.



Sipho Pityana, President of Business Unity South Africa (BUSA), has played a key role in building relations between the Ramaphosa government and the business community in support of the anti-corruption campaign and economic changes. The former senior government official and later business executive founded Save South Africa, a national campaign that broke the taboo on robust criticism of Zuma, which ultimately led to his removal by the ANC (AC Vol 59 No 4, A Saint Valentine's Day massacre, of sorts & Vol 61 No 3, Over the rainbow). 

Bonang Mohale, now chair of Bidvest, one of South Africa's largest companies, played a similar role when he headed Business Leadership South Africa, representing the country's 150 largest companies. Mohale is tipped as a potential successor to Pityana at BUSA. Mohale's successor at BLSA is the dynamic Busisiwe Mavuso, whose weekly newsletter has become essential reading in government and business circles (AC Vol 61 No 17, Graft puts ANC on the spot).


Civil society

Civil society organisations and activists, who used the law and the courts to challenge Zuma, have done much to aid Ramaphosa's anti-corruption campaign and to help the State Capture Commission and law enforcement and prosecution agencies to bring the ringleaders to book. They include Thuli Madonsela, the former Public Protector, who now holds a Chair in Social Justice and is Professor of Law at the University of Stellenbosch. She persuaded Zuma to appoint a Commission to investigate 'state capture' under his watch. In her new role, she has warned of the dangers of allowing the Zuma-Magashule axis to regain ground and has pushed for the rebuilding the institutions of democracy (AC Vol 58 No 13, Factional fireworks threaten party).

Other key civil society activists who helped expose the toxic agenda of Magashule and his fellow travellers in the ANC include: Mark Heywood, former head of anti-corruption lobby group SECTION27; former Constitutional Court Judge Johann Kriegler of the Centre for Human Rights; Lawson Naidoo of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (CASAC); the dedicated band of Lawyers at Corruption Watch; and the hugely effective lobby group known as OUTA, Organisation for Undoing Tax Abuse.

The Rev Frank Chikane, a former Director-General in the office of former President Thabo Mbeki and leading cleric and human rights campaigner, has been instrumental in the recent Defend Our Democracy campaign, which has held public protests insisting on the arrest of corrupt leaders.


Judiciary and criminal justice system

The judiciary, with one notable exception – oft-sanctioned Judge John Hlophe – have remained united in the push for reform. Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo has presided over almost three years of sensational evidence exposing the extent, depth and blatant nature of graft, embezzlement, kick-backs and looting of state funds (AC Vol 62 No 4, The captured spies & Vol 62 No 9, The battle over the bench). 

Ramaphosa-appointed National Director of Public Prosecutions Shamila Batohi has done an impressive job rebuilding the severely depleted prosecutors' office and, working in collaboration with the Zondo Commission, charging scores of accused and preparing for several major corruption trials (AC Vol 61 No 14, Showdown to follow lockdown).


Personal networks

Ramaphosa also relies on advisors such as former Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe, who is married to Bridgette Motsepe Radebe – sister of Ramaphosa's wife Tshepo Motsepe and billionaire Patrice Motsepe. Together they form what some business people call the Motsepe/Radebe/Ramaphosa dynasty.

Ramaphosa is also working with former Presidents Mbeki and Kgalema Motlanthe, who have kept up the pressure up on Magashule (AC Vol 62 No 7, Ramaphosa rallies ANC against the Zuma-Magashule axis). Motlanthe will play two key roles this year: running the selection of ANC candidates in the local elections and resolving the constitutional crisis in Magashule's old redoubt, Free State province.

Will incremental Cyril turn radical?

As President Cyril Ramaphosa consolidates power after his victory over his party rivals, he can plan the long-delayed restructuring of the government. Most immediately vulnerable are the handful of residual loyalists to Jacob Zuma: State Security Minister Ayanda Dlodlo; Second Minister in the Presidency (Women and Youth) Maite Nkoana-Mashabane; Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa; Communications Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams; and Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi. Some will leave of their own accord, some will be sacked and others will stay in place until the elective conference next year.

Meanwhile, another group – comprising Pravin Gordhan, Public Enterprise; Naledi Pandor, International Relations and Cooperation; Bheki Cele, Police; Gwede Mantashe, Minerals and Energy – are heading for retirement, either after the ANC elective congress or the 2024 general elections.

Ramaphosa has two immediate priorities: replacing the late and popular Jackson Mthembu as first Minister in the Presidency; and how to manage Mantashe's role as Minister of Minerals and Energy ministry, where his commitment to state ownership is seen as obstructive to restructuring of the ailing Eskom utility and transition to green energy. 

Mantashe has proved a powerful ally in Ramaphosa's fight against the Zuma camp, and in keeping the trades unions on side. But journalists have been digging into the details of Turkey's Karpower 'floating power station' contracts with South Africa and raising questions about the excessive costs and accountability. 

Also under scrutiny is the role of Mantashe's wife in the contracts. With Ramaphosa claiming to be cleaning house, it would be messy if one of his close allies got tangled up in a new contracting scandal. The opacity and expense of Karpower contracts is known across Africa. Ghana's ruinously expensive electricity procurement is a case in point.

Ramaphosa wants to boost the role of KwaZulu-Natal leaders in government. That could see Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize moved to Minister in the Presidency or to Mining and Energy. Also from KwaZulu-Natal is Senzo Mchunu, who is closer to Ramaphosa so would work better as Minister in the Presidency. Ramaphosa is also likely to back him as candidate for Secretary General or Chair of the ANC at the next elective conference. 

Deputy State Security Minister Zizi Kodwa, meanwhile, is being lined up for promotion either as second Minister in the Presidency or State Security Minister due to concerns in Ramaphosa's circle about Dlodlo's current role as State Security Minister.

Ramaphosa has to think hard about Lindiwe Sisulu: she is ANC aristocracy but made little impression in international affairs or her current post as Minister of Human Settlements. But she is high on the National Executive Committee list, and could challenge for the Presidency again next year. If that happens, Ramaphosa could offer her the Deputy Presidency and a chance for the top job in 2027. Or he could pick his rival for the presidency at the 2017 elective conference, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Ramaphosa will face great pressure to pick a woman as deputy or face a formidable campaign, led by a woman, for the top job. 

A by-product of the battle between Ace Magashule and Ramaphosa is the sidelining of Bathabile Dlamini, President of the ANC's Women's League. As a fulsome backer of Zuma and Magashule, Dlamini's star is crashing to the ground and battle for the control of the Women's League is set to follow.

Related Articles

The state capturers fight back

Corrupt officials and business allies are running multi-billion dollar rackets in state companies, derailing attempts at reform

The beneficiaries of what could be over 100 billion rand (US$6.8bn) of 'irregular spending' in the country's rickety state-owned companies over the past three years are pushing bac...

Shot in the dark

As officials argue over vaccine funding, the African country worst hit by the pandemic is fumbling its chance to limit the damage

A politically charged fight between the Treasury and the Health Department has derailed the government's bid to buy vaccines cheaply and quickly. Doctors and scientists criticise o...

Cyril and Ace's linked fates

A conviction in Magashule's trial could save Ramaphosa's career in the ANC and at the polls. An acquittal could end it

African National Congress Secretary General Ace Magashule heads to the Bloemfontein Magistrate Court on 19 February to face 21 charges of corruption and fraud dating from his time ...

Ramaphosa rallies ANC against the Zuma-Magashule axis

After a marathon meeting, the party's National Executive backed Ramaphosa's call for action against ANC Secretary General Ace Magashule

The rival factions of the governing African National Congress are edging towards a final showdown after its National Executive Committee meeting on 27-29 March decided that the par...

This time, it's personal

A spate of arrests of officials on corruption charges is leading to the door of Ace Magashule, Secretary-General of the ruling party

Within weeks Cyril Ramaphosa will face his toughest battle as President as he tests his authority against the second-most-powerful politician in the country, African National Congr...