The decisions of the ANC NEC, as announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa on Monday, appear to mark a crucial defeat for the party’s suspended Secretary-General Ace Magashule.
The ANC’s suspended Secretary-General Ace Magashule may now be caught in a trap after the National Executive Committee (NEC) decided he must apologise for his actions of the last week. At the same time, his allies might be in further trouble after the decision by the NEC to investigate who is responsible for the leaks of its meeting over the past few days.
Magashule could now be in more danger than he was before this meeting,
with his suspension merely an opening gambit.
He can’t blame others as the predicament he finds himself in appears to be the result of his own actions, bad strategy and avoidable mistakes.
Ramaphosa was calm, measured and appeared every inch presidential in his address on Monday.
Reading from his iPad (from which a charging cable dangled off his desk and presumably went into a charger) he slowly went through the NEC statement.
There was no sense of triumphalism — he was careful not to appear to enjoy what must have been a great political moment.
It seems impossible to avoid calling this a victory for Ramaphosa.
The very symbol of those who oppose him, Magashule, is now suspended and is in for more pain.
His supporters appear to be on the run, while Ramaphosa may now have ushered in a massive organisational change —
that those who are criminally charged have no choice but to step aside.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the statement for Magashule was not just that he is suspended,
but that the NEC agreed that his “letter of suspension” addressed to Ramaphosa last week
“had no authority or mandate from any structure of the movement”.
It went on to say that the NEC “agreed that such conduct was completely unacceptable
and a flagrant violation of the rules, norms and values of the ANC”.
It “advised” him to apologise publicly within a set time frame, or face disciplinary action.
Magashule seems to be trapped in a vice.
Either he complies and grovels for mercy or he faces further — possibly severe — action.
This is a person in a senior position in the movement attempting to suspend its president, all on his own.
It is entirely possible that a disciplinary committee may feel that he should be expelled from the movement outright for this abuse of trust.
But it was not just that Magashule issued Ramaphosa with his “letter of suspension” —
he also phoned media organisations to boast about it.
Even after the ANC had said officially the letter had no force or effect, Magashule gave an interview to SABC News.
This appeared to have been in defiance of the terms of his suspension,
which were quoted by Ramaphosa, and include the fact that a person who has been
suspended may not “make public pronouncements on matters related to the organisation”.
Magashule’s interviews, conducted after receiving his own letter of suspension,
were surely in violation of this clause.
Apologising in public now, after all that happened last week,
would be hugely embarrassing and would badly hurt his image of being an uncompromising fighter for his cause.
While it might be the correct strategic move to remain in the ANC,
it would also require swallowing his own considerable ego and admitting that he was wrong —
basically throwing all that he so firmly believes in under the bus. That might be too bitter a pill to swallow.
A chastened Magashule would be the ultimate symbol of Ramaphosa’s victory.
Magashule will have difficulty in fighting back: he has lost his office and could well be close to being expelled from the party, and he still faces criminal charges in the Free State which could lead to him being jailed, with more charges reportedly coming soon(ish).
Sadly for him, much of this intolerable situation is entirely of his own making.
If, instead of trying to “suspend” Ramaphosa, he had simply accepted the suspension, or even better, had stepped aside before being suspended, he could have been lauded as a principled leader who puts the collective ahead of his own interests and ambitions.
That would have forced Ramaphosa to publicly praise his virtues. While Magashule would have lost much of his political power through his loss of the secretary-general’s office, he would still have more negotiating bandwidth than he does now.
And his action, possibly taken in haste, to “suspend” Ramaphosa was always going to provoke an equally strong reaction.
This indicates the limitations of a provincial baron,
someone who is used to almost unchecked power.
It also demonstrates the very real complexity of being an ANC leader on the national stage.
And for Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula it may simply be a moment of ebullient satisfaction,
as Magashule will no longer be able to “kill” the ANC.
The NEC statement also promised to act over leaks of its meeting over the weekend.
This has been a consistent problem in the past few months, due to the fact that during a virtual meeting it is impossible to prevent discussions from being recorded (or to stop such “recordings” from being manipulated).
The NEC called the leaks a “concerted and well-resourced campaign to sow division and confusion in the ANC,
with the ultimate aim to destroy the movement”
and said that this campaign is “actively aided by a few individuals from within the NEC, through leaks,
deviant public pronouncements, protests and misinformation on social media”.
It says it will investigate the leaks and “take appropriate action”.
While it may be technically difficult to prove who in the NEC was responsible,
those in the ascendency in the ANC may well claim that this was the work of those who support Magashule in an attempt to prevent his suspension.
This may allow the investigation to put certain people under pressure.
Overcoming this situation may now be impossible for Magashule and his allies.
It would require strategic brilliance, humility and the ability to play a nuanced game of politics — none of which has been demonstrated so far.