Natasha Marrian Political editor: Business Day
All smiles: Newly elected president of the ANC Cyril Ramaphosa, left, with outgoing ANC president Jacob Zuma, right, and outgoing national executive committee member Pule Mabe during the party’s national conference this week. Picture: REUTERS
All smiles: Newly elected president of the ANC Cyril Ramaphosa, left, with outgoing ANC president Jacob Zuma, right, and outgoing national executive committee member Pule Mabe during the party’s national conference this week. Picture: REUTERS

Can ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa neutralise serial thug and conference stealer Ace Magashule? The answer will depend on how Ramaphosa exercises the authority handed to him by the party.

An entire day at the ANC’s 54th national conference was spent trying to find the numbers to get Magashule booted out of office and replaced with Ramaphosa loyalist Senzo Mchunu.

Rightly so, many argue, as Mchunu had delivered a significant chunk of votes from KwaZulu-Natal — the power base of Ramaphosa’s opponent, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

There has been much consternation about the election of David Mabuza as Ramaphosa’s deputy and Magashule as party secretary-general and whether or not they will hem him in and render him a lame duck.

This entirely depends not on the conduct of the two former premier league Zuma-ites, but on Ramaphosa. He does not have to look far for examples of how he could render Mabuza and Magashule powerless — both his predecessors, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, did it well, albeit to the detriment of party and country.

It is no coincidence that both previous secretaries-general of the ANC, Kgalema Motlanthe and Gwede Mantashe, ended their terms on hostile terms with the incumbent ANC president. Motlanthe backed Zuma against Mbeki in Polokwane and Mantashe threw his support behind Ramaphosa’s candidacy.

The ANC constitution vests organisational power not in the party’s secretariat, which essentially has administrative functions, but in its presidency.

Rule 16 of the party’s constitution states: "The president is the political head and chief directing officer of the ANC and the leader of the house at national conference or national general council meetings."

The president should "make pronouncements for and on behalf of the national executive committee outlining and explaining the policy or attitude of the ANC on any question"; should "present to the national conference and national general council a comprehensive statement of the state of the nation and the political situation generally"; and should "under the overall supervision of the national executive committee,
orient and direct the activities of the ANC".

The constitution is clear — the ANC president should be "supervised" but not "directed" by the national executive
committee. Even if Zuma’s backers remain in the committee, Ramaphosa could still exercise his power unimpeded, fraught environment as it is.


The responsibilities of the secretary-general are also spelled out in rule 16.6: he is a spokesman, a communicator of decisions, a keeper of minutes, a sender of notices and a conveyor of decisions.

Zuma and Mbeki deftly used and exercised the powers
granted by the ANC’s constitution. Mbeki neutralised people critiquing his HIV/AIDS beliefs, and examples of how Zuma used his powers are countless.

When Mantashe sought to overstep his political mark, Zuma swiftly pushed him back in line. This was plain to see after the Gupta family landed its wedding guests at the Waterkloof air force base in 2013.

Mantashe released a scathing statement on a private jet landing at a national key point, while Zuma went to the national executive committee and defended it, with reports at the time indicating that he had insisted that Waterkloof was not a national key point.

Mantashe’s probe into state capture, launched after former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas went public with the Guptas’ attempt to bribe him to take his boss’s job, went nowhere. This was because it was not sanctioned nor approved by Zuma, who is directly implicated in state capture.

After the 2016 local government election, during a national executive committee meeting to "introspect" on the matter, Zuma dismissed concerns expressed about the party’s poor results, saying the ANC still far outstripped its opponents in terms of its support.

This was despite the ANC’s loss of three major cities. The national executive committee issued a wishy-washy statement on taking "collective responsibility" for the loss, when it was clear that state capture, gerrymandering in the finance ministry, corruption and the Nkandla judgment were at the heart of the decline in voter support — all of which was attributable to Zuma.

When the national executive committee differed with the president, it did not matter, he simply closed the meeting by handing down marching orders, even when they contradicted the views of the majority of the top leadership structure.

Ramaphosa should also learn that the exercise of this power to bolster his personal interests instead of in the interest of the country will be detrimental to his career and legacy.

For Zuma, it may be detrimental to his freedom and ability to stay out of jail.

The lesson from the Zuma ANC presidency is to exercise power in the interest of the country first, not the party.

Zuma has repeatedly claimed that he places the party first (which is a lie). He does so only because the party provides a shield and a cover for his multifarious wrongdoing.


But despite Zuma placing the party first, the ANC roundly rejected his candidate for the president’s job, Dlamini-Zuma.

In placing the party first for his personal benefit, Zuma alienated the rest of society — evidenced in the party’s decline in electoral support under his watch and the dramatic drop in his popularity with thousands  taking to the streets to call for  his removal.

Now, without the authority vested in him by the party, Zuma cannot fire Ramaphosa from
the Cabinet as he is now an ordinary member of the party.

The new head of the National Prosecuting Authority and his deputies will be chosen by Ramaphosa, and the judge heading the judicial commission of inquiry into state capture will
be selected by Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng.

Zuma is effectively powerless and his lackeys in the party will soon realise this and begin abandoning him, even though many of them might have been returned to the national executive committee.

Zuma’s relevance has worn out, he is finally and truly a lame duck. His faction will begin to form new loyalties, new power bases. Already, they are fulminating about Mabuza’s betrayal.

Magashule, say Dlamini-Zuma’s backers, is enraged by his former premier league colleague switching sides. But they had fallen out months before campaigning for the ANC presidency started in earnest.

Mabuza has long been hostile to the Guptas and looked on with disdain at their displays of influence, pitting him against Magashule, a Gupta beneficiary and benefactor. Keeping distance between the two will be a critical task for Ramaphosa.

While experience shows that the secretary-general can be neutralised when it matters, it also shows that the deputy president ascends to the presidency. This makes Mabuza the man to watch — but that is a conundrum for another day.

For now, Ramaphosa needs to appreciate and recognise the power vested in him by the ANC, despite the noise from Magashule, the party’s youth league, its women’s league, KwaZulu-Natal with the most members, and the niggly flip-flopping North West.

He has the power to implement the reform he promised; all that is left is for him to use it.

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