The Corruption Battle Shaping South Africa’s Future - OZY | A Modern Media Company
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A power struggle between the country's two most powerful men over corruption could determine the direction South Africa takes.

By Nick Dall

  • President Cyril Ramaphosa is targeting Ace Magashule, South Africa’s second most powerful leader and predecessor Jacob Zuma’s most influential ally, over charges of corruption.
  • Ramaphosa is also bringing greater transparency to the country’s ruling party.
  • Some experts caution that Ramaphosa’s moves are a smoke screen for an internal power struggle. Either way, South Africa’s future is at stake.

“Today, the ANC and its leaders stand accused of corruption. The ANC may not stand alone in the dock, but it does stand as Accused No. 1.” These are not the words of a detractor of South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress. Instead they come from an open letter penned by President Cyril Ramaphosa on Aug. 23.

A long-simmering war on internal corruption that also mirrors a power struggle within the ANC has reached full boil, with Ramaphosa seemingly gaining the upper hand against party Secretary-General Ace Magashule, the topmost remaining ally of former President Jacob Zuma. Like Zuma, Magashule is widely seen as corrupt — he was compared to a Mafia don in Gangster State, the best-seller about his leadership of the Free State province, from 2009 to 2018.

The struggle between the ANC’s top two leaders could shape the future of South Africa’s leading party — and settle the direction of the country itself. But experts caution that it’s still unclear whether the moves to sideline Magashule are little more than what politics professor and Ramaphosa biographer Anthony Butler calls carefully choreographed “political theater.”

I am not convinced that the ANC will undertake internal reforms unless and until it is defeated in national polls.

Anthony Butler, biographer of President Cyril Ramaphosa

Eight days after sending that open letter, Ramaphosa took the unprecedented step of reporting the decisions himself at a special ANC meeting. Magashule, the man who usually communicates such decisions, was muted, quite literally, during the Zoom-hosted press conference in which Ramaphosa reported multiple changes to the party’s policy on corruption. These included a pledge to force ANC members who face criminal charges to step aside, an obligation for all officeholders to declare their financial interests, and new limitations on ANC leaders and their families doing business with the state. While potentially laying the groundwork for partywide reforms, these steps also specifically target Magashule and his family.

“The removal of Ace Magashule is a necessary step before an ANC reform process can be attempted,” says Butler. “[But] I am not convinced that the ANC will undertake internal reforms unless and until it is defeated in national polls.”

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African National Congress (ANC)’s Secretary General Ace Magashule delivers a speech during the closing ceremony of the NASREC Expo Centre in Johannesburg.

Source GULSHAN KHAN/AFP via Getty

Instead, he says, the ANC might be tempted to restrict itself to steps that build voter confidence without actually addressing the systemic problems that facilitate corruption within the party.

Veteran political commentator Stephen Grootes agrees that “getting rid of Ace would look very good.” He points out that the so-called clean ANC — the Ramaphosa-leaning faction that rules in the province of Gauteng, for instance — is “mired in PPE [personal protective equipment] corruption scandals” amid the pandemic. Still, Grootes acknowledges that the ANC might be at the correct “moment for proper reform.” Starting, he says, “is always the hardest part.”

Indeed, a flurry of arrests relating to Magashule’s time in charge of the Free State is evidence that Ramaphosa’s efforts to rebuild the National Prosecuting Authority, which was brought to its knees under Zuma, are finally bearing fruit. Magashule appears to be attempting to garner sympathy for himself in the event of an arrest. “It’s going to be a Hollywood-style type of thing,” he has said. “But we will see.”

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South African President Cyril Ramaphosa leaves after announcing changes to the National Executive during a press conference at the Union Buildings.

Source PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP via Getty

That Magashule sees himself as the victim of a witch hunt is obvious. But neither Grootes nor Butler is buying it, and the lack of support from prominent ANC voices is telling. Throughout his career, Ramaphosa has shown himself, says Butler, “to be a genuine believer in rule-governed behavior.” That’s why both experts expect Ramaphosa to enact the new ANC policy of forcing any member charged with a crime to step aside if a warrant for Magashule’s arrest does eventually materialize. “He doesn’t have to be charged with his most heinous crimes,” Butler points out, for the rule to apply.

While there is a sense of inevitability about Magashule’s impending downfall, its meaning for the future of the ANC — ­­and the country — is less clear. “The story of the good ANC versus the bad ANC is one Ramaphosa is dependent on,” says Butler. “But the reality is there isn’t very much of a good ANC there.” The overly close “relationships between politics, money and state” represent deep-seated challenges and “removing individual politicians doesn’t change the problem,” he adds.

It’s a problem that has been around for a while. Back in 2007, the ANC’s deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe, acknowledged that “this rot is across the board … almost every project is conceived because it offers opportunities for certain people to make money.”

While Grootes agrees with Butler’s logic, he still harbors some hope. “Zuma said the ANC came first and the country second,” he explains. “Ramaphosa says it’s the other way around. And he clearly believes it.”

Butler, meanwhile, thinks it will take a national loss for the ANC for the party to institute fundamental internal change. In power since the first democratic elections, in 1994, the ANC garnered its lowest vote share ever in elections last year — but at 57 percent, that was still a comfortable majority.

“It is very unusual for political parties to undertake reform of themselves,” Butler says. The ANC’s viselike grip on South Africa could weaken if the economic crisis brought on by COVID-19 sees the government unable to fund major education and health programs, he adds. “In other countries we have seen serious political fluidity over the past decade.” Could it be the ANC’s — and South Africa’s — turn next?

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