Recent events in the ANC regarding the implementation of the step-aside policy have exposed the fallacy of disciplined revolutionary cadres. Incidents such as the party’s secretary general taking the ANC national executive committee (NEC) to court, are bad for the ruling party but may be good for the maturity of our democracy.
The question is this: is Ace Magashule a party person, or an unruly cadre, unaware that his actions possess the potency to damage the ANC?
A party person is a member of a political party who willingly avails themselves to the discipline and the dictates of the party. The concept of democracy becomes redundant if party members prioritise their own interests over those of the party. Democracy means the majority rule in line with rules of the game that allow for participation, transparency and accountability. To be a party person is to consciously surrender oneself to the whip of the party, even when one disagrees.
The authority of the ANC’s NEC becomes denuded when a member of the ANC ignores its authority. If “calm waters don’t make a good sailor” it follows that the measure of a party person cannot take place when “waters are calm”. One cannot sacrifice the ANC and the authority of the NEC at the altar of egotistical considerations, even when camouflaged as constitutional rights.
The actions of Magashule, in defying and questioning the authority of the NEC and then taking his own party to court, are not actions that are in harmony with the dictates of the party. His actions threaten the very unity that is the bloodline of every party. To survive in politics, unity is indispensable. The actions of Magashule, objectively considered, are nothing but an assault on the party itself.
A lesson forgotten by Magashule is that the ANC has true party people. Much as this might sting Magashule, he would know that two former presidents fell at the whims of the NEC. Former President Thabo Mbeki adhered to his recall by the NEC in 2008 even though he could have taken the ANC NEC to court. Eager to stay on as former President Jacob Zuma was in 2018 — on the eve of his resignation he argued that only parliament has the power to remove a president — even he realised that his argument could not take off. The ANC caucus is in Parliament to implement the decisions and policies of the ANC, which is represented by the NEC. Both former presidents subjected themselves to the authority and wisdom of the NEC, which strengthened the ANC and the NEC.
The consequences for the former presidents were dire, because the only option was an absolute step down, not a reversible step aside. They had more reasons to fight than Magashule, but being party loyalists, they did not disturb the peace and unity of the party. They did not take their own party’s constitution to trial. They might have questioned the wisdom, but not the consensus of the ANC NEC, especially in court. These two are former leaders who understand the ANC ecosystem: its constitution, values, norms, and purpose. To derail the ANC NEC through a court litigation over a matter that can first be disposed of internally is the antithesis of party discipline.
Magashule, ought to know that the NEC’s legitimacy cannot, and should not be easily questioned, let alone by its own members. The NEC is the highest decision-making body in the party between conferences and is put together by the basic unit of authority in the ANC, the branches that elected Magashule to the secretary general position. Magashule failed to submit to the NEC and felt his position was more sacrosanct than the NEC. There is no anomaly here because the NEC is composed of more than 80 members who discuss issues in a robust manner and arrive at binding resolutions. Magashule exposes his feebleness when he assumes the party’s health and democracy can be safeguarded by an individual.
Magashule knows that even MPs of the ANC caucus are expected to toe the party line. It is therefore illogical for the secretary general to “listen to his conscience” and ignore the NEC. The same constitutional and democratic rights that Magashule seeks to ventilate in court apply to all ANC MPs. What would the outcome be should they all begin to “listen to their conscience”? Does this not immediately liquidate the ANC, as Gwede Mantashe, a former secretary general of the party, put it to the Zondo state capture commission?
In the words of Mantashe, Magashule has “institutionalised the SG”. Magashule is indifferent to the secretary general’s purpose of serving the NEC. His attempt, without the authority of the NEC, to suspend the president of the party reflects his belief that he is superior to the NEC.
The doctrine of peremption is applicable and reveals two approaches: a Mantashe approach and a Magashule approach. A Mantashe approach, embedded in his last press conference as the secretary general in 2017, states that one can take the ANC to court after having exhausted all internal democratic and disciplinary avenues. The Magashule approach concurs that taking the ANC to court is acting in an un-ANC manner, confirming that it is an anomaly and a sign of ill-discipline. The two approaches part ways on the point that the Mantashe approach allows one to approach the courts once internal avenues have been exhausted and proven disappointing. The Magashule approach specifies that once all internal ANC processes are exhausted, adhere to the outcome. Magashule’s flip-flopping reminds us that “calm waters do not make a good sailor”.
Magashule’s actions made it explicit that the ANC must understand that they are dealing with a person who is only interested in powers that flow from being the secretary general.
Several scenarios may arise from this. Assuming Magashule wins his court case against the ANC, what does he expect his working relationship with the deputy secretary general, the NEC, the national chairperson and the president will be? If the relationship cannot be rectified, then the NEC will be affected by Magashule’s presence in the NEC. Does Magashule expect the branches of the ANC to support him over the collective of the NEC? Should this happen, an ill-disciplined cadre who refused to accept his fate would have willingly blown the ANC unity mantra into smithereens. Perhaps then our democracy will pass another critical threshold and begin the arduous task of imagining South African political life in lenses less tinted in the colours of the ANC as we have so far known it.