ANTHONY BUTLER: After his rise, Ace Magashule is unlikely to fall too far
Businesslive 24 August 2020
South Africans should be feeling quite sorry for ANC secretary-general Elias Sekgobelo Magashule.
The Tumahole schoolboy earned the nickname “Ace” for his skills on the soccer pitch, where he was reportedly a midfield terrier. This brave young man risked his life to battle the injustices of apartheid. In 1985, he served nine months in solitary confinement under the Internal Security Act.
He became chair of the Free State ANC in 1998, but the exile-dominated leadership determined that he should never become provincial premier. After the Polokwane revolution of 2007, however, Magashule became both premier and party chair, for what was a highly controversial decade.
We should be forgiving: all too often great struggle heroes, or even less great struggle heroes, have been drawn into shady dealings. Very rarely, in those days at least, did they start out with criminal tendencies.
What is a premier and party chair to do in an informal tender committee when presented with a deserving list of party donors or factional stalwarts?
Any party chair who is not steeped in the dark arts of procedural manipulation, membership fiddling and vote-buying will soon be displaced by those who are. Any premier who cannot centralise and extract rents, plough them back into his organisational machinery and deploy a quantum of intimidation will soon be political toast.
Magashule thrived in the murky Darwinian swamp of Free State patronage politics. But the Free State is a stagnant backwater. Among the leaders of the ANC’s “premier league”, Magashule ranked a poor third behind Mpumalanga’s more robust David Mabuza and the North West’s more charismatic Supra “Black Jesus” Mahumapelo.
In 2017 Ace was nevertheless elected secretary-general of the ANC and so became the public face of a great liberation movement. Like Alfred Nzo, the snoozing incumbent between 1969 and 1991, he was elected because he would not lead the organisation in any new direction, rather than because he would.
Unlike previous secretaries-general Cyril Ramaphosa, Kgalema Motlanthe and Gwede Mantashe, Magashule could not lay even a spurious claim to be the voice of the workers or the disseminator of the great ideological tenets of the national democratic revolution.
He got the position because he had votes to sell and he had long-standing links to the Gupta family. His skeletons were connected to cows, gas stations, asbestos and consultancies for his children. He was always smallanyana fry.
He talked big, nonetheless, telling his nonexistent supporters to wait five years for the Zuma faction’s return. Now he is in Luthuli House, surrounded by those clowns of the Zuma era who were too pitiful even to secure parliamentary committee chairs.
Nobody wants poor Ace to have real power. Everybody wants Tumahole’s onetime leading schoolboy actor to play a new starring role.
The ANC won the 2019 elections on the basis that the “good ANC” would soon defeat the “bad ANC”. The good ANC is apparently Ramaphosa — but the list rather quickly depletes after that. The bad ANC, in contrast, seems to comprise a far more bountiful list of individuals.
Though stealing money set aside for Nelson Mandela’s funeral was once viewed as the height of reprehensible behaviour, the corruption that has surrounded Covid-19 procurement has more fully crystallised discontent with the ANC’s approach to public ethics.
What the ANC needs is a “senior member” who can be dragged through the courts and humiliated. It needs a “visible face” of corruption who can be slapped in chains — or at least slapped down in public.
But Magashule should not worry. Like Tony Yengeni, the chosen public face of the “arms deal” saga, it won’t be long before he is a hero of the liberation struggle all over again.
• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.