Why Magashule’s departure matters

ANTHONY BUTLER: Cyril Ramaphosa’s goal was more ambitious than to simply kick Ace Magashule out

Magashule’s removal has been used to institute a new rule of conduct in the practices of the ANC

First published BL PREMIUM

6 MAY 2021

The fate that has befallen ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule was worse than a mere termination of employment. He was thrown out of a high window, only to spread out like a pancake — or perhaps a cow pat — on the unforgiving ground below.

Those who are defenestrated endure a few long-drawn-out moments of consciousness, in which they can reflect on what has just happened to them. The thought no doubt flashed through Magashule’s mind that it was all so unfair.

The ANC’s electoral strategy rests on the conceit that the “good ANC” is engaged in a life-and-death struggle with the “bad ANC”. The secretary-general was framed as the perfect embodiment of the dark side, and he was henceforth destined for humiliation.

One key issue was always timing: why would the incumbent faction rush to throw out Magashule, in what would have looked like a factional purge, when it could instead play on the threat he posed to the future of the liberation movement?

ANC President Cyril Ramaphosa used his cameo appearance at the Zondo commission of inquiry to remind party members of the movement’s electoral vulnerability. The disappearance of a few bad eggs, he implied, was a sacrifice the movement simply had to accept. Only this would persuade the voters that the forces of light were in the ascendant, and that the ANC could therefore be trusted with their votes.

The president may also have done something very clever indeed. Across his political career Ramaphosa has been a keen advocate for rule-based behaviour. On the whole, he has wisely preferred to make the rules, while others have had to follow them. When setting up student Christian bodies or the National Union of Mineworkers, for example, he designed intricate constitutions to regulate the actions of the organisations’ members.

At the Zondo commission just last week he shook his head about the lamentable state of affairs with respect to the role of money in internal party elections — not least the one in which he was elected president of the ANC. New rules to limit such reprehensible tendencies should certainly be introduced in the near future, he suggested.

On a broader canvas, Ramaphosa has expressed support for rule-based and institutionally circumscribed governance. More than a decade ago, reflecting on SA’s constitution-making process in which he played such an important role, he observed that South Africans “chose to be limited by our constitution” because they “recognised the danger of placing absolute or unchecked power in the hands of whichever fallible human beings happen to rule at any given time”. Simply put, “constitutional government limits us in order to free us”.

It is through this philosophical lens, and not just in the light of the lens of impending elections, that we should view the delays in the process that ultimately led to Magashule being propelled from a high window. In retrospect, Magashule never posed a real threat to Ramaphosa. He boasted few supporters in the national executive committee who were willing even to speak out in his defence.

Simply kicking Magashule out could have been achieved relatively quickly. Ramaphosa’s goal has been more ambitious: to use Magashule’s removal to bake a new rule of conduct into the practices of the ANC. Now, and into the future, if you are charged you must step aside.

For many years the attentions of the criminal justice system have been viewed as a mild inconvenience by errant political leaders. Suddenly the decisions of the National Prosecuting Authority pose an existential threat to the careers of ANC office-holders.

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

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