Free State Premier Ace Magashule has denied accusations that he is purging party members who did not support his re-election as the ANC provincial chairperson at a recent conference in Parys.
ANC members and provincial employees told the Mail & Guardian that Magashule was behind the firing and suspension of "disloyal" senior provincial government employees who had campaigned against him in the run-up to the conference.
According to these sources, Lulama Ceba, provincial executive officer of the South African Local Government Association, and Sipho Thomas, municipal manager of the Nketoana municipality, were targeted and both were suspended recently.
Another source, also an ANC member, said attempts were under way to remove the speaker of the provincial legislature, Khotso Sesele, because he also did not support Magashule's re-election.
The source said that many other senior municipal employees were also said to be in the firing line. "Comrades are on the streets because they opposed him," the source said.
But in an interview Magashule denied the claims and said he had extended an olive branch to those who campaigned against him, including former provincial secretary Sibongile Besani and former provincial treasurer Mxolisi Dukwana.
"We will never purge people," he said. "I will never become arrogant because I have been elected chair. Why is it now that we are purging when we have not purged people in the past?
"I am talking to both Dukwana and Besani despite [them] leading a spirited campaign to remove me as chairperson. The provincial working committee said we must go back to these comrades and understand why they are so angry and why do they think we are so horrible.
"There is no crisis in the province as people claim. The Free State is united. We are also trying by all means to reach out to all those who lost at the conference and unite this province. The reason the so-called regime change group is fighting me is because I refused to open the succession debate or anything related to the ANC elective conference until nominations are officially opened in October.
"They wanted ANC structures in the province to pronounce and endorse Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula as the next ANC secretary general in Mangaung. When we refused, they said we were supporting President Jacob Zuma's bid for a second term.
"Our position is that we will discuss nominations at the right time. For now, we are discussing through the eye of the needle."
Magashule defended the legitimacy of the provincial conference held in June and said there had been no irregularities.
His detractors claim that many legitimate delegates were excluded from participating, simply because they belonged to a group who wanted to remove Magashule, the longest-serving ANC provincial chairperson.
"The audit of branches is the terrain of the national office through the ANC secretary general [Gwede Mantashe]. Ditto the provincial conference is also the terrain of national.
"Eighty-four percent of branches were audited and 80% went to the provincial conference. It was not us that made some of the branches fail the audit. It is not our choice to decide which branch should go to the conference.
"In terms of the ANC constitution, if you have 70% of the branches you can go to conference and we met that threshold," said Magashule.