Free State premier defends the Guptas

It’s not a fait accompli that Cyril Ramaphosa wil be president, says Ace Magashule. (Jean Pickard)

It’s not a fait accompli that Cyril Ramaphosa wil be president, says Ace Magashule. (Jean Pickard)

As the whisperings of discontent in the ANC over President Jacob Zuma grow louder, the party’s Free State chair and premier, Ace Magashule, has rushed to his defence.

Magashule, seen as a key player in the 2017 ANC succession battle, has hinted that his powerful faction within the party won’t back Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa to succeed Zuma as the party’s president.

Zuma has faced a barrage of criticism, within the ANC and from outside party ranks, after his decision late last year to fire Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister.

And ANC MPs who had defended Zuma in the past are now criticising him for the Nkandla debacle that ended up in the Constitutional Court last week. After two years of not acting on the public protector’s recommendations, Zuma did a U-turn and agreed to pay a portion of the R246-million spent on nonsecurity improvements to his Nkandla home.

The president’s link with the controversial Gupta family is another flashpoint inside and outside the party. The family is accused of using its connections with senior ANC leaders such as Zuma and Magashule to cash in on lucrative state tenders.

The ANC has publicly decried the “corporate capture” of its leaders – where companies use them to secure state business. The South African Communist Party and labour federation Cosatu have also publicly stated their concerns about the Guptas’ influence on ANC leaders.

Speaking to the Mail & Guardian after his State of the Province address in Bloemfontein on Tuesday, Magashule dismissed calls for Zuma to resign and the Guptas to leave the country.

Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters has led the charge against the Guptas, threatening to force them out of the country.

Party anger
This week, the Free State premier downplayed his party’s anger towards the Gupta family. He said the EFF’s calls to remove the Guptas were nothing but a political point-scoring exercise.

Magashule added: “The investors will never take the EFF seriously. They [the Gupta family] are [South African] citizens, like many others. Leaders associate with business all the time. They have associated with [Western Cape Premier] Helen Zille, [United Democratic Movement leader] Bantu Holomisa and many other leaders, because they are businesspeople. There are many businesses, and businessmen and women, who interact with government at all levels: black, white, Indian and coloureds.”

He said there was nothing untoward about his relationship with the Guptas, denying that the family controlled him. Magashule’s son is closely linked to the Gupta family. He is reported to be working for Mabengele Investments, in which Zuma’s son Duduzani and Tony Gupta are majority shareholders.

“There is no way that the Guptas can run me. The Guptas are citizens of this country like any other person, and there is nothing wrong with government doing business with them,” said Magashule.

He dismissed suggestions that the Guptas were behind the appointment of Cabinet ministers. Malema said this week during the State of the Nation debate that he had witnessed Fikile Mbalula taking a phone call from the Guptas telling him he would be promoted to sports minister.

“Ministers are appointed by the president,” said Magashule. “The president engages [with] other officials of the ANC when he appoints ministers. The president is a real democrat. Those who don’t know him will say he does not consult with his comrades. He always consults on simple little things, which I at times think he should have just taken a decision [on] alone.

“There is no way that ministers will be appointed by these guys [the Guptas]. What power will they have to appoint ministers?” he said, adding that calls by opposition parties for Zuma to resign as president were misguided and opportunistic.

“We can’t be told by the opposition that the president must resign. It can’t happen. It will also be better to say who are these members [of the ANC] who are not happy with president Zuma. Unfortunately, I don’t know whether they [unhappy ANC members] exist or they don’t. If they exist, let them come out and let’s hear them,” said Magashule.

He also challenged ANC leaders unhappy with Zuma’s leadership to come out in the open and make their views known.

Premier league
The Free State premier said attempts to associate him with the so-called premier league were aimed at tarnishing his name ahead of the 2017 ANC elective conference.

North West Premier Supra Mahumapelo and Mpumalanga Premier David Mabuza are reported to be part of the so-called premier league, which is said to be pushing for African Union Commission chair Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to succeed Zuma as ANC president in 2017 and South Africa’s president in 2019.

In what could be interpreted as a vote of no confidence in Ramaphosa, Magashule said there was never an ANC tradition that the deputy president succeeds the president: “We elect leaders during conferences. If we elected the deputy president to become president, it will not be because of the tradition. It will be because there is voting. It is not because we say this is something we must do.”

In a tacit endorsement of Ramaphosa, Cosatu at its national congress in November reaffirmed its 2006 resolution that the deputy president of the ANC should succeed the president when his term comes to an end. The federation supported Zuma to succeed Thabo Mbeki as ANC president in 2007.

Asked what Ramaphosa’s prospects were of succeeding Zuma, Magashule said he saw him as part of the ANC leadership collective. “The ANC is not about presidents or deputies. It’s about the entire collective. Cyril is part of the collective.”

He was cagey when asked whether he supported a woman as a suitable candidate to succeed Zuma.

“We will elect people based on the type of leadership we want. We will look at the issue of the presidency. Whether it’s a woman or a man – we want the best leader,” he said.

About being part of the so-called premier league, he said: “I interact with all premiers – from Northern Cape, Western Cape, Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal. At times, as premiers we do meet and discuss things generally. So, we have never met to discuss a plot or do any other thing. I don’t know why people just want to tarnish our image. It is intended at weakening our base … and we are not taking it seriously. When we are not happy, we must talk to each other. There is no need to fight each other out there in the media.”

Matuma Letsoalo

Matuma Letsoalo

Matuma Letsoalo is the political editor of the Mail & Guardian. He joined the newspaper in 2003 and has won numerous awards since then, including the regional award for Vodacom Journalist of the Year in the economics and finance category in 2015, SA Journalist of the Year in 2011, the Mondi Shanduka SA Story of the Year award in 2008 and CNN African Journalist of the Year – MKO Abiola Print Journalism in 2004. Read more from Matuma Letsoalo

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