ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule. PICTURE: ESA ALEXANDER/SUNDAY TIMES
ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule. PICTURE: ESA ALEXANDER/SUNDAY TIMES

It’s a waiting game for President Cyril Ramaphosa as he watches his political opponents fight desperately for survival and to stay out of jail.

According to ANC insiders, while former president Jacob Zuma and secretary-general Ace Magashule have lost sympathy, they haven’t exhausted all support. Their mobilisation efforts within the party will become clear in the next few weeks.

Until then, it seems Ramaphosa is watching and being careful not to do anything that could consolidate support in their favour. That is probably why the much-touted cabinet reshuffle has stalled.

As predicted, Magashule, who was seen as the primary loser when the ANC in late March gave those facing criminal charges 30 days to step aside, is not going to depart quietly. This week he sought to change the rules, saying even those who face mere allegations should vacate their positions.

It is an obvious plan to spread panic in the ANC and undermine the national executive committee’s (NEC) decision, which was widely interpreted as a victory for the faction of the party aligned to Ramaphosa.

In a ramping up of factional battles, an audio of ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte pledging support for Zuma and attacking the judiciary was leaked on social media.

For Zuma’s supporters, Duarte’s comments, while deeply compromising for her, can be used as evidence that he enjoys backing within the party at a time when Ramaphosa and the NEC have given the impression that the ANC is united in defending the judiciary and its independence.

If Zuma leaked the audio clip of the private meeting between himself and the ANC top brass featuring the comments of Duarte — she has in the past showed unyielding loyalty to the former president — it will only serve to show the level of desperation of Ramaphosa’s political opponents. For Duarte, it might show that, indeed, in politics there are no permanent friends.

The point of the Duarte leak for Zuma is to demonstrate that he has political backing at a time when the Constitutional Court is considering what to do next after he defied an order to appear before the commission of inquiry into state capture.

Up to now Zuma and Magashule have run a textbook counterintelligence campaign, mostly through the media, in an aerial battle to win public sympathy. Whether this translates into a ground attack will become clear in the next few weeks, and it looks like Ramaphosa has decided that the best strategy is to sit on his hands and watch as time runs out for both Zuma and Magashule.

That will determine Ramaphosa’s strength as ANC president and also make the balance of forces clear as the party is due elect a new leadership at a national conference in 2022.

Of course, all of this strife comes at the expense of SA at a time when the country is desperate for leadership. Since Ramaphosa became the country’s president in 2018, having closely won the ANC leadership a few months earlier, he has been distracted by the antics of Zuma and Magasuhule. This looks set to continue.

The political leadership should be primarily concerned with how to navigate the country’s recovery from the Covid-19 crisis, which saw GDP shrink by the most in a century during 2020 while unemployment jumped to a record 32.5%. Instead, those in positions of power are fighting for their own party and personal interests, and the economy has been relegated to the background while Zuma and Magashule make headlines.  

While few in the ANC want Magashule, and even fewer Zuma, to go to jail the law should take its course and the ANC and Ramaphosa should focus on more important issues. For the latter, it means demonstrating that his focus is on governing SA, not merely managing never-ending ANC infighting.                                                                                 

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