‘A man who speaks the truth, is always at ease,’ tweeted Ace Magashule back in early May. It was seen as something of a threat by the Secretary-General of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC), who is fighting a suspension from the party over alleged corruption.
A few days earlier, the firebrand politician had challenged his temporary suspension from the ANC in the High Court. He’d also written to Cyril Ramaphosa calling on the South African president to resign over his role in ANC in-fighting.
Magashule had been arrested late last year in connection to a R255 million ($18 million) asbestos scandal in the Free State province.
The ANC secretary-general and more than a dozen others, including ANC Women’s League provincial chairperson Olly Mlamleli, face 70 charges of corruption, money laundering and fraud related to a tender to audit and replace hazardous asbestos roofs in the province while he was premier. Not a single asbestos roof was replaced in the region, despite $18 million of taxpayers’ money being spent.
Under the ANC’s constitution, Magashule is supposed to withdraw from official party duties while the matter is resolved. However, Magashule refused, claiming the so-called ‘step aside resolution’ introduced by former president Kgalema Montlathe, is unconstitutional and invalid.
A full bench of the Gauteng High Court was scheduled to hear the matter on June 24.
The battle lines were drawn. And the acrimony flared. In mid-June, former president Thabo Mbeki went on record questioning Magashule’s ‘commitment to be a loyal servant in the ANC’.
Magashule retaliated with a lengthy missive, dissing Mbeki’s leadership, claiming that even Mbeki’s father had misgivings when Nelson Mandela appointed him as deputy president, and accusing Mbeki of being responsible for the deaths of more than 300,000 South Africans due to his HIV-Aids denialism when president.
The claims made by Mashagule in his affidavit have been described by constitutional law expert Pierre de Vos as a ‘confused mess and advances many nonsensical arguments’. De Vos concedes that Magashule may have some wiggle room in the legal ambivalence of the ANC constitution, which determines who has the authority ‘to decide whether a suspension should be affected and how it should be implemented’. However, it’s a long shot.
De Vos believes that the ANC will be damaged – perhaps irreparably – if it does not implement the step-aside policy. He thinks the decision to place the Minister of Health, Zweli Mkhize, on special leave following his alleged involvement with another multi-million-rand contract proves President Ramaphosa is ready to ‘tackle corruption’.
Insiders within the party are split over how Magashule and President Ramaphosa should proceed. The secretary-general had the support of former president Jacob Zuma, who faces a number of legal charges himself. But even Zuma has said Magashule should not fight the suspension through the courts.
What is certain is that the battle is not so much about the soul of the party but about the purse and power of the party.
There are allegations that ANC members given jobs within the civil service have helped funnel money earmarked for public works into the coffers of the ANC. During the Zondo Commission set up to investigate alleged corruption during Zuma’s presidency, the former Chief Executive of the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa), Lucky Montana, alleged that the party pushed the heads of state-owned entities to contribute to ANC activities and do business with ANC officials in their personal capacity.
Above: Former president Jacob Zuma's time in office was dogged by corruption probes.
And the ANC does have money problems. The South African Revenue Service (Sars) placed a seizure order on the party’s electoral account in May for R17 million ($1.2m) due to non-payment. Acting Secretary-General Jesse Duarte brushed it off as a simple ‘cashflow problem’.
Ramaphosa will need more than an asbestos suit to survive this pending firestorm. With the municipal elections in October, huge unemployment, and dissatisfaction over service delivery, the ANC will be at pains to sidestep corruption claims.
The ruling party is facing a number of high-profile cases at the moment.
In January, the Asset Forfeiture Unit (AFU) seized assets belonging to KwaZulu-Natal provincial treasurer Mike Mabuyakhulu and 15 others connected with corruption over a R26 million ($1.8m) jazz festival that never happened.
Meanwhile, the on-going Zondo Commission into alleged corruption during Jacob Zuma’s tenure, continues to overshadow the party in the run-up to polling.