Cyril Ramaphosa speaks after taking the oath of office at his inauguration as South African president at Loftus Versfeld stadium in Pretoria, South Africa May 25, 2019. File photo: REUTERS/SIPHIWE SIBEKO
Cyril Ramaphosa speaks after taking the oath of office at his inauguration as South African president at Loftus Versfeld stadium in Pretoria, South Africa May 25, 2019. File photo: REUTERS/SIPHIWE SIBEKO

As the former head of the then exiled ANC’s intelligence wing, Jacob Zuma perfected the intricate art of neutralising opponents. He took those tactics to government, using them to fend off accusations of corruption, state capture and the Nkandla scandal after he took power in 2009.  

His methodology is simple: sideline dissenting voices by, among others, axing ministers from his executive team and promoting little-known officials, such as Des van Rooyen, to powerful positions in law enforcement, cabinet and the judiciary, where they can fly his flag.    

But the same can’t be said about his successor, President Cyril Ramaphosa, whose survival skills are increasingly looking inadequate in a deeply divided ANC. Faced with a simmering fightback campaign within the party, Ramaphosa’s supporters want to see decisive action against those who oppose his more liberal agenda and who are looking for ways to oust him.     

The fightback is believed to be led by Zuma’s ally, ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule, who is accused of ruthless gangsterism, rampant corruption and using undemocratic means to cling to power during his controversial tenure as Free State premier.

Magashule is considered a key cog in the anti-Ramaphosa faction due to the seniority of the position he holds in the party, which is akin to that of a company CEO. His and Zuma’s faction counts as members former ministers and alleged Gupta acolytes Mosebenzi Zwane, Faith Muthambi, Malusi Gigaba and Nomvula Mokonyane. They backed former AU Commission chair Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma to succeed Zuma as ANC president after the latter had been forced to begrudgingly resign as head of state, a decision he now argues was “not an innocent move”.

It is doubtful whether Ramaphosa, the former trade union leader, can successfully use skills honed in wage negotiations with mining bosses and later as one of the lead ANC negotiators in the 1990s to end apartheid to come out on top in the factional battle and achieve consensus within the ANC.

Magashule has sought to undermine Ramaphosa at every turn since his appointment. Just weeks ago he pushed for the appointment of key Zuma allies to head strategic parliamentary portfolio committees, which facilitate oversight, monitoring and, crucially, determine resources.

Some would argue that he got his way, to a large extent. Zuma allies Muthambi, Zwane and Supra Mahumapelo are now among those heading parliamentary committees. Their appointment takes the fightback campaign beyond Luthuli House to the legislature.      

If evidence presented before the state capture commission is anything to go by, Magashule ought to take a leave of absence from his ANC duties until his name is cleared.

Alongside Zwane, who now chairs the transport portfolio committee, Magashule has been placed at the centre of the Vrede dairy project, which has become a striking example of the brazen corruption that has rocked SA.

Millions of rand of taxpayer funds meant for small-scale farmers was allegedly siphoned off into accounts linked to the Gupta family, with some apparently used to pay for a lavish wedding at Sun City in 2013.

One of the intended beneficiaries of the project told the commission recently how Zwane, then provincial agriculture MEC, elected to take his church choir for a jolly to India, instead of the project’s beneficiaries receiving training in that country. Another witness, Roy Jankielsohn, explained how Magashule and Zwane opted to use “personal insults” instead of accounting for the scandal, saying those implicated were shielded from accountability.

Under these circumstances it is difficult for even the most optimistic among us to believe that Ramaphosa can build consensus within the ANC, whose positions, communicated primarily through Magashule, have a profound effect on the sentiment of investors — the people Ramaphosa needs to woo if he is to get the economy back on a robust growth path. 

A lot has been written about how Ramaphosa needs to move swiftly against those seen to be undermining his reform agenda, within the ANC, in the government and in parliament, before they become more emboldened and pose a serious threat to his continued stay in the Union Buildings.

The president needs to find a new set of survival skills to strengthen his tenuous grip on power. He should start at Luthuli House, where an alleged fraudster, Carl Niehaus, has seemingly taken up residence in Magashule’s office. Niehaus’s presence at the heart of the ANC in its headquarters has left many senior officials baffled, with the apparent exception of Magashule. But as they say: birds of a feather …