Mcebisi Ndletyana | Dealing with the megalomaniac that is Ace Magashule

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ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule. Picture: Mlungisi Louw
ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule. Picture: Mlungisi Louw

Mcebisi Ndletyana writes that the ANC, rather than deal decisively with Ace Magashule, has opted for a truce which might cost the party later on.


Ace Magashule's suspension, as secretary-general of the ANC, represents progress in party reforms, but is not a decisive leap forward. It is disproportionate to the magnitude of the problem - i.e. megalomania - that Magashule embodies.

Rather than deal decisively with this vice, the party has opted for a truce. This may be temporary, for Magashule doesn't believe he has committed any fundamental infraction and is emboldened in that belief by this placation. 

A temporary suspension is understandable in an instance where one suffered a rare lapse in judgement. Magashule writing a letter suspending the party's president, knowing that he had no authority to do so, indicates a calculated misdemeanour that a megalomaniac figure can only orchestrate.

This is a figure that has long been in the making. One of the early signs of his delusion of grandeur manifested in 2012. Then Magashule had already served more than three terms as provincial chairperson of the ANC in the Free State. He stood yet again for re-election at the conference in June 2012, but his chances of winning seemed slim. 

Magashule couldn't countenance the thought of losing at that conference. And so, he tampered with preparations towards conference to prefigure the outcome in his favour.

Hands tied 

Sibongile Besani, who was then provincial secretary and contesting against Magashule, could do nothing about it. With the majority of members in the provincial executive committee (PEC) behind him, Magashule encouraged his supporters to flout rules and defy Besani's instructions.

Bogus branches, set up by Magashule, were allowed to send delegates to the conference. Those that were likely to vote against him could not convene general meetings to elect delegates to the conference, as deployees that were tasked to oversee them simply didn't not show up.

That was deliberate to ensure that those branches did not send delegates. But, the Magashule grouping appointed representatives of those branches to attend the conference on their behalf. 

Because of all those infractions, the Constitutional Court annulled the election of Magashule and his PEC in 2012. That would not be the last time Magashule would rig conference preparations, or the court disbands the Free State PEC on account of impropriety.

The Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA), just earlier in March, disbanded the Free State PEC.

The dispute dates back to 2017, when Magashule was still chairperson of the ANC in the province. After 23 years at the helm, he had decided to vie for national office. To bolster his chances of success, Magashule needed to leave behind a pliant PEC that would support his bid at the national conference later that year. To achieve that, Magashule did what he does best - rig organisational processes. 

By 2017, however, Magashule's opponents were alert to his tricks. In the lead up to the provincial conference, scheduled for December, they rushed to court as soon they noticed the old shenanigans.

The Free State High Court agreed with them that the Branch General Meetings (BGMs) "that were conducted throughout the various regions in the Free State were irregular, unlawful, unconstitutional and/or in breach of the ANC constitution".

Accordingly, the High Court went on to warn that the, "Provincial conference of the ANC, Free State, scheduled for 1 to 3 December, will be a nullity and is not to be held until the aforesaid meetings have been held in a lawful manner and in accordance with the constitution of the ANC".

This would come to be known as the Van Zyl order after the judge that wrote the ruling. 

Indeed the PEC had a rerun of the BGMs. But, as the High Court, on being approached yet again, would later observe: "This too, suffered from many of the same irregularities that had manifested themselves before the Van Zyl order."

They went ahead nonetheless to convene the conference on 10-11 December 2017. 

Outcome annulled 

Passing the ruling on 15 December 2017, Judge Molemela had no choice but to annul the outcome of that conference as the Van Zyl order had warned. This was a setback for Magashule, for it did deny him of 27 PEC votes that would have gone in his favour at the national conference the following day. The setback was not fatal, though.

Magashule still managed to edge Senzo Mchunu, for the position of secretary-general, by 23 votes. Mchunu's supporters, about 36 of them, were mysteriously nullified. When Mchunu asked questions, Magashule and his supporters threatened to collapse the conference. Cyril Ramaphosa, who had been just elected president, appealed to his supporters to let the travesty pass to save the conference. 

Now secretary-general, Magashule was back to calling the shots in his backyard of Free State. He still needed Free State as his base to mount a comeback against Ramaphosa.

In a much-publicised video, in which he also insinuated that Ramaphosa was an imposter that had usurped the ANC, Magashule vowed to remove him in five years. In Free State, he filled the provincial task team (PTT), which was the interim leadership that would oversee preparations for the regional conference with his own allies. And, the PTT did not disappoint, as it followed Magashule's script, rushing to the conference despite inadequate preparations. Seeing the blatant violations, two members of the PTT distanced themselves from the decision on convening the conference in May 2008. Magashule's allies won the conference. 

The petitioners were unrelenting and petitioned the Supreme Court Appeal (SCA).

Shocked at violations

On probing the evidence, the SCA was shocked by the flagrance of the violations. For starters, the earlier two adverse rulings, the judgment notes, "gave the respondent an opportunity to be alert and scrupulous in ensuring compliance with the law prior to holding the 2018 PC".

Instead, the PTT acted as if there were no legal orders to conduct its business properly. The violations were just glaring, without any care. Some BGMs were conducted without a register of members; people whose membership had expired were allowed into some meetings; and other members were misled about the time and venue of BGMs so that they didn't attend.

Magashule approved all those shenanigans, which the SCA correctly ruled inappropriate. Akin to 2012 and 2017, yet another of Magashule's PEC has been disbanded.

Writing a letter suspending Ramaphosa is typical of Magashule.

He's a fundamentally dodgy character who's accustomed to acting with impunity. Asking him to apologise is similar to begging him to behave. Even if he does apologise, Magashule is most likely to ignore conditions of his suspension, which include non-involvement in ANC activities.

Magashule already likens them to draconian apartheid practices of banishment; thinks that the public prosecutors are biased and simply want to send him to prison, where he'll die of poison. This national executive committee, Magashule believes, is planning his death. 

The NEC will not know of any rest from Magashule.

Expulsion is the only way that ANC can rid itself of Magashule's toxicity. Renewal has casualties. Avoiding them simply prolongs instability, defocuses the party on essential things and defers, if not spoils, electoral gains.        

- Mcebisi Ndletyana is an associate professor of politics at the University of Johannesburg and author of Anatomy of the ANC in Power: Insights from Port Elizabeth, 1994 – 2019 (HSRC Press, 2019).

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