ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule. Picture: REUTERS/SIPHIWE SIBEKO
ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule. Picture: REUTERS/SIPHIWE SIBEKO

So where to now for Ace Magashule and the forces of radical economic transformation (RET)?

Unpacking the health of an ANC faction nowadays is a tricky business. For a start, these are generally not factions in the traditional political meaning, but rather loose coalitions defined by common and shifting interests, seldom with particular ideological cohesion. If anything, ideology is used mostly to pressurise opposing factions.

A case in point is the RET, which is cohered by the dire consequences of its fragmenting hold over the ANC. It is now all about fighting to avoid punishment for individual members while desperately beating drums to distract attention.

The RET’s three most visible players are all in legal trouble: Magashule faces a corruption trial in August and a hostile ANC national executive committee (NEC), former president Jacob Zuma is locked in a personal battle with the Zondo commission and a trail of other legal woes, and public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane is probably on her way out.

The other political centres of power aligned with Magashule have been conspicuously quiet since the NEC decision. In part, this is because the ANC structures have now cracked the whip over any official expressions of support for Magashule. And Magashule’s provincial support base (in the Free State) has been damaged by the dissolution of the ANC provincial executive by the Supreme Court of Appeal.

The balance of power in the NEC also seems to have shifted towards President Cyril Ramaphosa. 

In the most recent meeting, Ramaphosa won almost all the battles, getting his preferred candidates deployed to the national working committee (NWC) and the Youth League task team. Attempts to collapse the meeting by Magashule’s supporters are best read in terms of a lack of alternative strategies. Alleged threats of “mass resignation” had little credibility. 

Our understanding of the ANC constitution is that a majority of the NEC would have to vote in favour of or resign to trigger a special national conference — a bar too high for the RET.

So, what next for Magashule? Lobbying has managed to secure him a month to “consult”. 

He intends to talk to party elders – Zuma, Thabo Mbeki, Kgalema Motlanthe and Mathews Phosa. The last-mentioned three are all likely to tell him to comply with the ruling, and the relevance to internal ANC politics of the first mentioned is doubtful.

Magashule clearly intends to force Ramaphosa to remove him by suspending him.

It means he will want to use the remaining 16 days (at the time of writing) to convince enough political constituencies that his removal as secretary-general will be damaging to their interests. 

This will be a tall task: Ramaphosa has been consistently focused on including as many political elites as possible in the upper echelons of state and party power. He can promise defectors far more than Ace can. 

In other words, only groups or individuals threatened with the same fate as the secretary-general (including Zandile Gumede, Mike Mabuyakhulu and Bongani Bongo) and potentially those who fear something similar in the future have much incentive to align themselves with Magashule. 

For most others, there is a far greater incentive to marginalise Ace in terms of aligning themselves with the faction in power, opening up the secretary-general position in 2022 and getting rid of potential challengers.

Of course, three weeks is long enough for something to change that could alter Magashule’s fortunes. He is likely to keep some powder dry for the days leading up to what will probably be his suspension by the NEC. It is, however, difficult to envision a situation where the RET camp continues to be Ramaphosa’s major internal opposition.

How does this play out for Ramaphosa?

Ramaphosa’s handling of the political moment, if Magashule is suspended, is critical to his future. 

He has two contradictory imperatives: first, to gain a more decisive grip on the party, and second, to be careful to limit the damage he doles out to his political opponents. 

Pushing through the step-aside decision included in the integrity commission reports that were passed at the NEC meeting on March 28 will improve the perception of the ANC’s institutional strength and get rid of some of Ramaphosa’s most vocal opponents. 

But most of these opponents — including Ace — have relatively limited and provincially defined bases of support. Ramaphosa will want to be more cautious when it comes to marginalising elites with more national support (though the he pared back the influence of many Zuma-era national networks in the May 2019 cabinet reshuffle).

Ramaphosa also has to do a balancing act to consolidate his own support base. 

The SA Communist Party (SACP) has proven a reliable ally, but pushing through a public-sector wage freeze cannot but damage his standing with labour federation Cosatu (even if it is historically weak right now). 

For Cosatu, the Ramaphosa ANC is the only show in town. It is no surprise to us that Cosatu announced this week that it will support the ANC in local government elections this year — implying that one of the reasons is to ensure that the “wrong” groups (read: the RET forces) don’t find a way back to power in Cosatu’s absence.

The government, Ramaphosa and the ANC are all vulnerable to the social pressures building up as a result of economic hardship and the extremely limited fiscal space. This is a natural path of attack for the RET, which has already attempted to deepen the fissure between the government and tertiary students struggling for access to funds to study.

Nonetheless, it is probably a sign of weakness for the RET forces that it has been unable to capitalise significantly on the narrowing fiscal space that the government faces. Social pressures will continue to mount as budget cuts and stagnant growth affect people’s quality of life. 

At this point, fiscal consolidation is unavoidable. But making both public sector unions and the poor feel the pain simultaneously by freezing wages and social grants is a dangerous strategy. It will be in Ramaphosa’s interests to soften this impact as soon as he has the space to do so.

  • Borain and Balt are independent political analysts. Subscribe to Borain's blog here.

 

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