The Ace in Ramaphosa’s pack; more like his pair of 2s

JOHANNESBURG — There’s a classic proverb which says ‘a chain is only as strong as its weakest link’, something which must run through the mind of ANC President Cyril Ramaphosa in the run up to the May 8 election. And while there are more than a few ANC members on a much-debated election candidate list that make Ramaphosa’s chain weaker, there’s one in particular that’s been propelled to the surface. ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule, in a position of power now, has carried the Zuptoid branding since being implicated in the Estina Dairy/Gupta scam in the Free State when he was the Premier. And while a hydra has many heads, from the outside the ANC seems to have at least two. This is where political analyst Daniel Silke aims his pen, considering the mixed messages being delivered by the ruling party on the campaign trail. A Ramaphosa-inspired one up against a Magashule-inspired one. – Stuart Lowman

By Daniel Silke*

If there’s one thing that Pieter Louis-Myburgh’s Gangster State” book has done, it has been to shift the 2019 election away from the virtual referendum it had become on Cyril Ramaphosa’s “New Dawn” to a more focussed interrogation of the more nefarious aspects of the ANC as well as provide a real test for the tolerance levels within the governing party of Mr Magashule and they type of political orientation he allegedly represents.

Political analyst Daniel Silke

In so doing, the 2019 campaign of the ANC has taken an unintended twist that now pits the more reform-minded Ramaphosa against an alternative ANC faction (or interest-group) at worst seemingly keen to perpetuate the misrule of the past and at best, eager to redefine radical economic transformation in their own terms.

Mr Magashule has not taken the allegations thrown at him lying down. Whilst he is yet to take legal action against the contents of the book, his most recent strategy seems to be centered around coming out with guns blazing – on the campaign trail. And, his tactic seems largely aimed at differentiating himself from President Ramaphosa by presenting a more populist, racially polarising message pretty much akin to the EFF or the Zupta faction of old.

What’s significant is that the ANC has always presented mixed messages. Indeed, its very strength has been in allowing its Alliance partners an open microphone to speak to their respective constituencies and in so doing, present a compelling case for the broad church that was always the ANC.

In previous elections, we have seen both COSATU and the Communist Party engage in policy and electoral rhetoric largely supportive of their own ideological positions – even if this differed from the more mainstream ANC position.

The final month of Election 2019 is becoming very different. The SACP and COSATU have largely gone silent. As key elements of the tripartite Alliance, their voices have never been weaker. And, within the context of the ANC election campaign – which usually brings enthusiastic rallying cries, there seems precious little of their influence – at least on public platforms. Indeed, a more ‘workerist’ message is now being propounded outside of the ANC itself by smaller parties.

Instead, the triumvirate of elements that have been the backbone of the ANC has been replaced with two competing factions within the mainstream of the party.

Mr Magashule is now fighting for his political life. And he knows it. His own ‘fight-back’ is beginning to usurp the historical ANC approach of talking to workers and expounding their rights as well as returning to the party’s socialist roots – roots that now barely exist in the discourse coming out of Luthuli House.

Instead, the ANC is now in this unusual – and highly problematic realm of factional campaigning. Mr Magashule increasingly embodies the anti-Ramaphosa and seems to be willing to run with this. His message this weekend in Cape Town of “Don’t waste your time on the white man again. The white man can’t improve the life of a black man” smacks of racial invective more closely association with the EFF in recent times.

Mr Magashule is doing two things at once. He is carving out a political niche for himself as the chief proponent of the Zuma legacy of more radical expression. But, he also undermines the more conciliatory approach of Cyril Ramaphosa presented only a week prior to largely white farmers in the heartland of Stellenbosch.

The real rub here is that Magashule’s radical tone is now being presented as a co-sponsor of the ANC in this election. It’s not only an election about Ramaphosa the reformers, it’s now an election about Magashule – the more populist maverick.

Ace Magashule, Gangster State, Zapiro
Aced. More of Zapiro’s brilliant work available at www.zapiro.com.

Whereas Ramaphosa would’ve liked his 2019 campaign to be a referendum on his approach to South Africa’s rebirth, the election is now has an alternative focus on Magashule’s approach – and of course, the Pieter Louis-Myburgh books provides a ‘curriculum vitae’ of sorts for those looking for signs of Mr Magashule’s governance style.

Whilst it would seem that Ramaphosa’s faction has managed to limit the public appearances of former President Jacob Zuma on the campaign trail, it’s much more difficult with the current – and more powerful – Secretary General of the ANC. Mr Magashule knows this. And he knows that this last 4 weeks prior to the vote is his chance to provide some type of leadership equivalence to Cyril Ramaphosa.

The real problem for Mr Ramaphosa is whether this more radical style of rhetoric is designed to provide a more populist message to undercut the EFF or whether it is an alternative vision for the ANC under different leadership.

Using Magashule as a foil for the EFF-sympathetic side of the softer ANC-support base might be akin to using COSATU as a workerist mouthpiece, but the populist (and increasingly racially-defined) utterances from Magashule spoils the Mandela-esque gestures of rapprochement recently evident in Ramaphosa’s addresses to white audiences in particular.

In any of these scenarios, Magashule’s use of racial invectives undermines confidence in South Africa and questions the credibility of Cyril Ramaphosa to hold the middle ground as he begins to shore up his more fragile hold over the ANC. And, if this type of approach from Mr Magashule persists, is it sanctioned by Ramaphosa as part of the new-style of mixed messaging now seemingly present within the 2019 ANC?

In the absence of clarity on these issues, the ANC is on shaky ground. At least when the Unions held some sway, their message was ideologically clearer in campaigning. Now it’s factions that do the talking with personalities replacing policy as the points of departure.

There is a danger now that President Ramaphosa can lose control of the key messages related to the New Dawn that largely characterised the last twelve months in the build-up of the campaign. Should this be the case, any majority for the ANC (narrow or larger) may be interpreted by both factions as a mandate for them to pursue their different political orientations.

Gangster State” has therefore had the unintended consequences of muddying the ANC message. It has exacerbated the internal contradictions already apparent within the ANC – and at election time, it adds a layer of confusion to Ramaphosa’s campaign that neither he nor South Africa needs.

With Mr Magashule firmly on the campaign trail – and seemingly speaking off-message – he either needs to be reined in by his President or the ANC itself must come clean on which message is the real message of this campaign. Double-speak using polarisation tactics to fight an internal ANC battle may not end prettily for anyone.

  • Daniel Silke is director of the Political Futures Consultancy and is a noted keynote speaker and commentator. Views expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielSilke or visit his website.