The scene is set for a bruising battle within South Africa’s ruling African National Congress after its secretary-general, Elias Magashule, ignored a party deadline to quit over graft allegations.
Magashule, nicknamed “Ace”, was given a 30-day ultimatum on March 30 to resign, after he was charged with embezzling public funds at a time when he was premier of the Free State province. He denies the charges.
His fate tests the ANC’s vow to cleanse itself of an image of corruption, revive confidence in South Africa’s governance and restore party support at the ballot box.
This strategy, say analysts, may succeed or founder with Magashule, 61 — a tough-as-old-boots political infighter with a permanent scowl and an equally entrenched following.
“For the first time, the ANC is about to fire its own secretary-general. That has never happened in history,” said political sciences professor Mcebisi Ndletyana.
The Magashule affair touches on the history and heart of the ANC.
The party was the force that brought South Africa’s apartheid system to an end and has governed the country ever since its first democratic elections in 1994.
Within this enclosed hierarchy, Magashule worked his way up through the ranks, starting in his home province of the central Free State and building a support network along the way.
– Zuma era –
A crucial moment came in the early 2000s, when Magashule became the chief political confidant of South Africa’s scandal-tainted former president, Jacob Zuma.
“Zuma’s rise opened the way for dropping the standard when it comes to the requirements for leadership in the party,” said political analyst Ongama Mtimka.
Under his regime, said Ndletyana, a corrupt official would be allowed to “indulge on party resources, so long as he paid homage to the president, to the king.”
A 2017 research report entitled “Betrayal of the Promise: How South Africa is being Stolen” labelled Magashule as one of several “elites” that built patronage networks, abetting the illegal distribution of benefits under Zuma.
The charges against Magashule relate to public funds that were set aside to vet government houses with asbestos roofs in 2014.
The hazardous roofs were never removed, and investigators believe that the equivalent of over $12 million was pocketed.
Magashule was briefly arrested in November and granted bail on graft charges. He is next expected to appear before a high court in August.
– Saving the ANC’s ‘soul’ –
The ANC’s avowed cleanup has a long and stuttering history.
In 2017, its decision-making body, the National Executive Committee (NEC), ruled that any member or leader who had been criminally charged should either voluntarily resign or face suspension.
But it took until 2020, and two years of frustrations for Zuma’s anti-graft successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, before this rule was activated.
Public outrage erupted over a series of coronavirus-linked corruption scandals involving state officials.
Presidential spokeswoman Khusela Diko and provincial health minister Bandile Masuku were among a handful of senior people who were charged and removed.
The step-aside strategy is a “battle to retain the soul of the ANC as an organisation of integrity and morality,” said Mtimka.
He and others see a party riven by divisions between fervent supporters of Zuma — whose prosecution for alleged corruption has been dragging on for years — and members supporting Ramaphosa.
Magashule, a champion of Zuma, “has opposed the consolidation of power by the new president,” said Mtimka.
Ramaphosa would be “vulnerable” as long as the secretary-general remained in power, he warned.
“The party has no choice but to become sensitive to public perceptions about its integrity and as such needs to act in ways that reaffirm… its commitment to fight corruption and crime,” Mtimka said.
Testifying before a judicial panel probing alleged state looting under Zuma, Ramaphosa on Wednesday assured the ANC was determined to end “the excesses that took place”.
But some commentators have doubts, and suspect Magashule’s dismissal could be endlessly delayed.
ANC Treasurer-General Paul Mashatile said to local media last week that it would be “over-simplistic” to expect a forced resignation at the deadline.
Party spokesman Pule Mabe told AFP Magashule’s fate would be discussed after the NEC received a list of “comrades” that “maybe impacted” by the step-aside resolution.
“If they were to allow Magashule to remain in his position, it will be another nail in the coffin of the ANC’s credibility,” John Steenhuisen, head of the opposition Democratic Alliance party, warned this week. AFP