Magashule has to go

President Cyril Ramaphosa had a good election campaign. Whatever the final outcome of the national and provincial polls, he ran well ahead of his party in every credible opinion survey. Nobody can doubt the contribution that he has made to the ANC’s victory margin.

While he waits along with the rest of us for the final results to be announced, he is almost certainly wrestling with major decisions on two fronts. The first broad front concerns government. In February, soon after he assumed office as president of the country, he made a promise to reduce the size of the cabinet and to restructure central government departments. This was a substantial and high-profile commitment and he cannot now easily backtrack on it.

Last week, the ANC reiterated as a matter of fact that section 84 of the constitution gives the president a “prerogative to appoint and dismiss ministers … the issue of the cabinet is solely a presidency matter”.

Ramaphosa also told the party’s Siyanqoba rally at Ellis Park last weekend that cadres found guilty of corruption would not form part of his government. While he may yet insist on waiting for the Zondo commission to conclude its meandering deliberations, the promised downsizing provides him with a political pretext for pre-emptive removals.

An intriguing suggestion recently circulating has been that Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma might be appointed deputy president. This would mend Nasrec divisions, restore gender balance and bring KwaZulu-Natal back into the top tier of leadership. It would also reiterate the futility of the “fightback” allegedly being undertaken by an increasingly isolated Ace Magashule. Dlamini-Zuma herself has confirmed in a memorable soundbite that, “if I’m asked to sweep the floor, I’ll sweep it very clean – whatever I’m asked to do I will do”.

Another Nasrec hopeful, Zweli Mkhize, would be an interesting prospect for the finance department if Tito Mboweni cannot be prevailed upon to remain. He could be supported by former Gauteng finance MEC Barbara Creecy, who would make an admirable deputy.

We might have to wait a little longer for Ramaphosa’s promised central government restructuring. The president has no doubt discovered that state reform has a paradoxical aspect: guidance about how to make the public service more effective and efficient tends to come from ineffective and inefficient sources, such as the department of public service and administration.

When reform comes, it will probably leave the Treasury untouched and rationalise the economy cluster, which has become a mish-mash of competing ministers, policies, and ideologies. Meanwhile, Ramaphosa is sure to beef up the presidency itself, bolstering the planning machinery, developing new policy research capacity and introducing a unit to unblock obstacles to delivery.

The president also has to act on a second broad front, where matters are equally urgent: he has to stabilise the ANC itself. On his way to vote on Wednesday, former president Kgalema Motlanthe told reporters the ANC leadership “is well aware that this is the last chance. Therefore I have no doubt in my mind that soon after the elections they will attend to all the weaknesses in the party.”

The ANC’s national executive committee (NEC) has one immediate decision to make, and that is how to tackle the problem posed by its own secretary-general, Ace Magashule. His long history of procedural manipulation in his former province, Free State, suggests he is more than fully complicit in the kind of abuses that the secretary-general needs to correct.

Readers of Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s book Gangster State have waited with bated breath for Magashule to supplement book-burning with legal action. The fact that Magashule’s attack-lawyers have remained in their kennels suggests the secretary-general will sooner or later come to the attention of the criminal justice system.

The ANC will pay a great price in terms of lost credibility if Magashule has to be painfully and embarrassingly removed at a later and less politically convenient time. The NEC therefore has a difficult but inescapable decision to take: it must find a way to remove Magashule now.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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