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Why South Africa’s president stands on solid ground in the fight against corruption

A thin bespectacled man wearing a dark suit, blue shirt with an open collar and a Covid-19 mask below his mouth leaves court room
ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule in court in Bloemfontein, on corruption charges. EFE-EPA/Conrad Bornman

Sometimes, the best thing politicians can do to take a society forward is – nothing. This reality is key to understanding the prosecution on corruption charges of the secretary-general of South Africa’s governing African National Congress (ANC), Ace Magashule.

Magashule, a leader in the ANC faction which supported former president Jacob Zuma, is the highest-ranking politician besides Zuma himself to face charges of misusing public trust. The prosecution stems from lengthy investigations into “state capture”, the use of government power to serve private ends.

Much of the media, business and the public debate have been urging his prosecution and that of other Zuma allies; they now have what they wanted, a signal that highly placed politicians are not above the law.

Inevitably, the prosecution has not pleased Magashule and his faction: their reaction has prompted claims that they are about to fight back by unseating President Cyril Ramaphosa. When Magashule appeared in court in his home province, Free State, his supporters gathered despite an appeal by the ANC leadership (including, in theory, Magashule himself) not to demonstrate on his behalf. Some burned T-shirts bearing Ramaphosa’s face. Magashule addressed them, insisting he would not step down from his position despite an ANC executive committee decision that office holders charged with corruption should do this.

Media also reported that Magashule’s supporters were planning a special ANC conference at which Ramaphosa would be removed. Reporting and commentary assume that the prosecution has triggered a battle to control the ANC between Ramaphosa and his faction, and the group which supports Magashule, and that this is likely to decide the future of the governing party.

Factional battles

In reality, the chances that Magashule’s prosecution will tear the ANC apart and seriously damage Ramaphosa are slim. But it may well take South Africa into a new era.

As ever, media reports on events since Magashule was charged are long on televised drama and leaks from politicians, very short on making sense of either. The demonstrations outside court may have seemed dramatic but were inevitable.

Magashule is a key figure in the Zuma faction whose members are now threatened by the prospect of a raft of prosecutions of politicians accused of “state capture”. He also controls a network of supporters in Free State. This made a rally in his support, much like those which are organised when Zuma appears in court, inevitable. Given the enmity between the factions, some of those who gathered were bound to denounce Ramaphosa.

But the fact that a few hundred loyalists arrive to cheer a politician does not mean they have much support in the ANC.

Politicians also regularly leak their plans to the media because they know they will be reported without any attempt to evaluate the information. The fact that some in the Zuma faction, in order to create a sense of momentum, told the media that they were organising a special conference does not mean they will be able to do this.

Magashule’s refusal to step aside is no great act of defiance since the resolution requiring this is not in force.

Ramaphosa’s position in the ANC

The important question is whether Magashule’s faction has the support it needs. This seems very unlikely. Since he won the ANC presidency (in December 2017), Ramaphosa’s position has strengthened. A key reason is that he halted the slide in the ANC’s electoral fortunes under Zuma: its 2019 national election showing was its first to improve on a previous election (the 2016 local ballot) in over a decade.

This means more seats for ANC politicians for whom winning one may be the difference between being middle class and poor. It is easy to see why most ANC members who vote at conferences, special or otherwise, would continue to back him.

Obviously, the prospect of widespread prosecutions alarms ANC members who fear they are in the firing line. But for every office holder who may lose a seat because they are prosecuted, another job opens up. For every politician alienated by the prosecutions, at least one other sees them as a lifeline.

This makes it unlikely that Magashule’s allies could attract enough support to convene a special conference (which needs support from most of the provinces) and even less likely that, if they did, they could win. As long as the ANC vote holds firm or improves – which it did in local government by-elections recently – Ramaphosa should command majority support in the ANC.

Another aspect of this saga strengthens Ramaphosa’s position further. One of his core goals since becoming president has been to strengthen government institutions to ensure that they are not prey to attack as they were during Zuma’s tenure.

A particular concern is to insulate the criminal justice system from interference by politicians. One of the earliest decisions Ramaphosa had to make was the appointment of a national director of public prosecutions.

All his predecessors had appointed the person they wanted. Ramaphosa asked citizens’ organisations, in particular lawyers’ organisations, for their recommendation and accepted it. So, the director, Shamila Batohi, is the choice of the legal profession, not the president. Which may be why she is the first person in the job who is a professional prosecutor with no apparent political history.

Since then, Ramaphosa has – despite intense pressure from business and other interests – refused to intervene to hasten prosecutions of politicians accused of “state capture”. He has insisted throughout that decisions must be taken by prosecutors and has kept as far as he can from the workings of the prosecuting authority.

Unlike his predecessors, he can, therefore, credibly insist that he has no role in the prosecutions. While members of the opposing faction might claim, spuriously, that he is behind it, it seems unlikely that this will gain much traction given his attitude since he took office. Ramaphosa is also under no pressure to do anything at all about the prosecution since he had nothing to do with it. Given this, the fallout is likely to be contained by the ANC and the promised fight to the death is unlikely.

Looking forward

But, if the prosecution will not trigger High Noon in the governing party, it could open a new era. Regardless of the outcome of Magashule’s case, a high-ranking politician has been charged because a prosecutor thinks he is guilty, not because a politician wants him gone.

That signals not only that politicians are subject to the law but that prosecutors can treat senior politicians like any other citizen and not face political consequences. That would be a victory for the rule of law and the administration of justice which would dwarf the ANC’s factional politics, despite the noise that it generates.

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