Ace Magashule is the battle for the soul of the ANC

For years, Ace Magashule was one of South Africa’s most powerful politicians, a populist fire whose name was synonymous with the ruling African National Congress.

But now, the former ANC secretary general is suing the party that has ruled South Africa for 27 years, after which he suspended him for refusing to abandon an investigation into allegations of corruption.

“Nobody’s kicking out my ANC.” . . I will not leave the ANC and I [will] dies at the ANC, ”said Magashule, who denies the lawsuit, this month in a rally for former President Jacob Zuma. Zuma had appeared in court in a long-running corruption case. The Magashule trial is scheduled for August, months before the ANC conducts local polls scheduled for October.

Senior ANC officials have condemned Magashule’s “reckless, divisive and defiant” behavior. “He has been charged in a criminal court with fraud, corruption and money laundering and should lead by example and stand as such. [other] ANC members have done so, ”Jessie Duarte, a former Magashule deputy, said in newspapers opposing her procedure this week.

The battle for the fate of Magashule represents a wider struggle for the soul of the party led by President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is eager to close a door on the legacy of his predecessor’s reign. At stake are not only competing visions of how to revive South Africa’s post-pandemic economy, but also attitudes towards the ill-treated post-apartheid institutions under Zuma’s rule. Zuma’s presidency has been marked by a scandal over so-called “state capture,” or by the systematic looting of public resources.

Magashule and Ramaphosa represent opposite wings of the party. Magashule’s allies are known for their attacks on the judiciary, while lawyer-turned-tycoon Ramaphosa wants to temper the party’s radicals. “The divisions are so unbridled.” It’s either him or Ramaphosa, ”said William Gumede, president of Democracy Works, civic foundation.

Ace Magashule addresses students protesting outside ANC headquarters in Johannesburg in March © Michele Spatari / AFP / Getty

For the first time since the president took office in 2018, “there is a sense that Ramaphosa has finally entered office, that even the corrupt are starting to get scared,” Gumede said. If even the highest ANC officials can be suspended, send a “chain” signal to bags of ANC-ruled municipalities broken at the basic level, he added. Dozens more of party members have been asked to step down by the rules applied to Magashule.

Magashule’s attempts to fight him are also wrong. He sought to suspend Ramaphosa as president of the ANC and consequently face possible disciplinary charges in the party. While Magashule tried to style himself as a tactical master, a social image about him laying on a chessboard, peg in hand, was mocked by Garry Kasparov, the great Russian chess master, as “photo-op opening”.

“Ace has become isolated even among anti-Ramaphosas,” said Dr Ralph Mathekga, political analyst. More and more former allies of Magashule and Zuma are considering their future careers under Ramaphosa, he said. But this realignment does not signal a deeper confrontation of the party’s confidence in patronage policy, he added.

Outside of the twists and turns of Magashule’s struggle with Ramaphosa, South African newspapers have in recent weeks been full of scandals over ANC links to public tenders allegedly rigged, above all, from pandemic funds to emergency supplies. “The model doesn’t really change,” Mathekga said.

Magashule’s own cause against his suspension paints a picture of elite party members who are hungry for power regardless of their faction. “The real reason for my being purged is the desire to drive me, off a hook or out of a criminal, out of the omnipotent position of [secretary-general], so that the road to the re-election of President Cyril Ramaphosa and his faction. . . it’s facilitated, ”he said.

These messages are aimed at sowing unrest among the party’s ranks instead of winning in court, analysts said. Ramaphosa is running for re-election as party leader at the end of next year. While it has strong support on the ANC’s national executive committee, a group of about 80 senior officials, and its caucus of legislators, it has less support among grassroots party affiliates.

Magashule’s long-term hope is to convince members to hold a special first vote to defeat Ramaphosa, even if this is unlikely, analysts said. Magashule’s “best bet” is to try this maneuver on the party rather than break it, Mathekga said.

As one of the oldest African political parties, the ANC has experienced several splits. But without access to the party’s brand and taking state resources, they ended up mostly in electoral oblivion. Only one, the Economic Freedom Fighters, made up of left-wing exiles from the ANC, have ever secured more than a million votes in the general election. The EFF won more than 10 percent of the 17.4 million votes cast in the last national election in 2019.

The ANC won just over 57 percent of the vote in 2019, with a low turnout. A smaller ANC and a smaller voting base favored long-term escapes, such as the post-pandemic economic crisis, Gumede says. “People are angry and dissatisfied. . . the ANC’s bases are in absolute struggle ”.

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