President Cyril Ramaphosa and Ace Magashule. Picture: SIMPHIWE NKWALI
President Cyril Ramaphosa and Ace Magashule. Picture: SIMPHIWE NKWALI

"Ace Magashule is a definite no no no, the man will finish what is remaining of our movement. He will kill it." These were the prophetic words of Fikile Mbalula, now the ANC’s head of elections, ahead of the party’s 2017 elective conference at Nasrec.

Now, it’s not every day that you put "Mbalula" and "prophetic" in the same sentence, but there it is. Even more unlikely: Mbalula is right.

Yet, at the same time that Cyril Ramaphosa was elected president of the ANC and ushered in a "new dawn", Magashule was voted in as secretary-general. It said much about internal ANC battles that the party, while talking tough about "cleaning up", elected the man who destroyed the Free State during his nine years as premier to a post seen as the party’s CEO, responsible for communicating its message to the electorate.

The Nasrec conference also chose David Mabuza as deputy president — a man who, as The New York Times wrote last year, was implicated in siphoning money from schools and other public services in his home province of Mpumalanga to "buy loyalty and amass enormous power".

It illustrated crisply the single point on which EFF leader Julius Malema and DA leader Mmusi Maimane agree: Ramaphosa’s "new dawn" was over the day it started.

Magashule and Mabuza threaten to be as dangerous for Ramaphosa as Jacob Zuma was for Thabo Mbeki. In 1997, Zuma was elected as Mbeki’s deputy in the ANC, becoming deputy president of the country in 1999. Over the next few years, the claims of corruption in the arms deal mounted against Zuma. Mbeki fired him in 2005 — tipping a domino that led to Mbeki’s recall and the installation of Zuma in the Union Buildings.

Picture: 123RF/SERGEY KOCHUROV
Picture: 123RF/SERGEY KOCHUROV

Ramaphosa will know this precedent well, and he’ll be sure to tread especially carefully.

The furore over Magashule reached new heights this week after a book by investigative journalist Pieter-Louis Myburgh, Gangster State, revealed in startling detail the true horror of his ruinous reign over the Free State.

It also detailed Magashule’s link to a Sandton businessman, Ignatius Mpambani, who scored an allegedly corrupt R255m contract from the Free State government. Mpambani was meant to split this loot with officials (including someone called "AM"), only he was gunned down in 2017.

But it was the ANC’s bizarre response to the Myburgh claims that was most concerning. The party took a page out of Malema’s handbook by failing to refute any of the allegations, instead accusing journalists of being part of a "stratcom" operation. The response, seemingly written by Magashule himself or people close to him, was entirely unbecoming of a governing party that cares about being transparent with the electorate.

Magashule then doubled down, raging: "All the time, [the media] write allegations, you don’t write facts."

So what does this mean for the ANC on the eve of an election?

Not much, considering its candidate lists are littered with those implicated in state capture. It’s not just Magashule — it’s Mosebenzi Zwane, it’s Nomvula Mokonyane, and it’s Bathabile Dlamini.

But Ramaphosa can’t just fire Magashule either, since he’s an elected ANC official, put there by branches. Unless a court pronounces on it, the only way to remove him is to wait until the next ANC elective conference in 2022.

It’s an indication of what many already know: the ANC may win the election in five weeks, and it may do so convincingly, but the decline that began more than a decade ago will continue into the next term and beyond. Mbalula’s words will surely come back to haunt the ANC for years.