Full account of Free State skullduggery

In a web: ANC secretary general and former Free State premier Ace Magashule, who is alleged to have looted that province, has not been able to effectively counter such claims. (Delwyn Verasamy)

In a web: ANC secretary general and former Free State premier Ace Magashule, who is alleged to have looted that province, has not been able to effectively counter such claims. (Delwyn Verasamy)

GANGSTER STATE: UNRAVELLING ACE MAGASHULE’S WEB OF CAPTURE by Pieter-Louis Myburgh (Penguin)

The first response of Ace Magashule, former Free State premier and now ANC secretary general, to this book about him was tellingly Trumpian: he described it as “fake news”. This came in a statement under the name of the ANC itself, but it was obviously Magashule’s personal counter-attack, using his position as secretary general to speak in the name of the ANC.

He also said he would sue the author, Pieter-Louis Myburgh, but as yet no actual legal action has taken place, so it looks like Magashule was simply making threats to intimidate an author he later referred to as a “non-person”.

A later response was more traditional. As we all know by now, people wearing ANC T-shirts invaded the Johannesburg launch of the book last week, tore up copies of the book, and generally brought it to a halt.
This was condemned by the ANC, and a planned book-burning by the ANC Youth League in the Free State was called off. Subsequent launches of the book went off without such incidents and, of course, the most evident result of the invasion was more publicity for the book.

Magashule seems to have no defence against the claims made in Gangster State other than denial, propaganda and intimidation. Myburgh has built a very solid case, showing in detail how patronage networks, using diverted state funds, were developed and maintained in ways that benefited Magashule and enhanced his “strong man” rule in the Free State.

Myburgh tells the story of Magashule’s rise to power, going back into his history in the struggle against apartheid, a history apparently exaggerated to make it look like Magashule had a more significant role than he really did. On the simplest level, claims by Magashule that he spent 18 months in exile are easily debunked (it was just five months). Other stories of Magashule’s, such as the one about his smuggling struggle money through airports hidden in a teddy bear, are refuted by people who were truly involved in trying to fund anti-apartheid action in South Africa.

It is not hard to believe that some of the money that was supposed to reach comrades in the townships, especially in the Free State, ended up in Magashule’s own pocket. It is quite clear, from this part of the narrative, that he was always in it for himself.

Significantly, despite years of factional battles in a divided Free State, by means of which Magashule tried to advance his political project, it was only when Jacob Zuma became president of South Africa that Magashule could seize the reins there. He was certainly using the same playbook as Zuma (and various other “big man” despots), and his lavish support of Zuma is the clearest possible indicator of how closely entwined their interests were — and doubtless still are.

Myburgh gives a full and detailed account of the housing debacle that was one of Magashule’s first big manoeuvres in the Free State. A good R1-billion had to be spent on housing there or it would have been cut in the next budget, so it was spent — very rapidly, and almost entirely in a manner that broached all the rules of proper financial management. Suppliers and contractors were brought on board willy-nilly, regardless of previous experience or any assurance that they could do the job, which ultimately they indeed failed to do. Fewer than half of those more than 20 000 houses were actually built, and most of those that were built were so badly made that they were barely habitable.

Here is the core of the kind of damage done by such patronage politics: Magashule’s Free State administration basically ripped off the poorest of the poor, the very people whose interests the ANC is supposed to have at heart. Similar stories have played out again and again all across South Africa in the last two decades, including in Johannesburg’s Alexandra, where R1.7-billion allocated to development in that township simply vanished. It is unforgiveable, and it’s no wonder Alex residents are up in arms — and ready, as they did last week, to protest in the streets of well-heeled Sandton.

Myburgh has another example of money being diverted from development to the pockets of political and tenderpreneurial players in his account of the asbestos scam in the Free State. In this case, more than R200-million was put into a scheme to document all the houses with asbestos roofing, which was to be replaced because it is dangerous, except, of course, almost none of the money went into that project.

A central figure in the asbestos scam was Igo Mpambani, who was murdered in broad daylight in the middle of Sandton — shot by two assassins in his Bentley (one of several luxury cars he bought after he got the Free State tender), which contained nearly R1-million in cash. It looks like Mpambani was about to undertake another of his regular journeys to the Free State, where he acted as a bagman distributing cash around the patronage network there. (He’d used some of that money to pay for transport to get ANC Women’s League and other supporters to the party’s rallies.)

Myburgh has managed to lay his hands on substantial chunks of Mpambani’s financial records, including a list of bribes to be paid. This is a treasure trove of information that shows how, in such tenderpreneurial money-laundering schemes, funds are diverted to shore up political projects such as Magashule’s domination in the province.

The motive for Mpambani’s murder is still unclear (fellow conspirators who were defrauded?), but the motive for the murder of Noby Ngombane, a provincial official trying to stem the tide of corruption, is not. Myburgh quotes his widow as saying: “It was about money and not really about politics”, but in the context of such patrimonial power plays, they are the same thing.

The tale of such skulduggery is paralleled in Gangster State by a solid account of the accompanying political machinations, especially the manipulation of ANC branches to boost support for Magashule and to knock out any opposition at grassroots level. More than one court case has found the Magashule group in the Free State to be guilty of such subversions of the ANC’s internal democratic processes, and there are still lingering questions about how he won the position of ANC secretary general.

In vital ways, Gangster State allows us to see how the programmes of self-enrichment and self-aggrandisement work in tandem with this destruction of democracy, both in the ANC and in the body politic as a whole. It helps to explain how South Africa got into its present dire state, and gives a clear picture of precisely what has to be fought against if we are ever to get out of it.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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