Of the “exclusive” club of men who have run the ANC in the position of secretary general in its more than 109-year existence, Elias “Ace” Magashule will go down as the only one to have both been suspended and to have suspended the president of the party in the space of a few hours.
In a turn of events that not many could have ever predicted, the 16th secretary general of the ANC, whose office has been occupied by revered figures such as Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu, launched a scorched earth campaign at his very own political home after his suspension.
It was an unprecedented move, the ramifications of which will only begin to be felt this week at the party’s national executive committee (NEC) meeting at St George’s Hotel in Irene. The move may just represent the peak of the “fightback” campaign launched by the losing faction at the ANC’s last elective conference in Nasrec, or serve as a warning of something more calamitous for the ailing party.
Over its history, the party has faced crisis after crisis that has called into question whether this “broad church” could continue as a unit. This breakdown in relations between the secretary general — essentially its chief executive — and the remaining top five members is a test it has never faced before. There’s no playbook.
Tensions between the office of the ANC presidency and that of the secretary general are not necessarily new. In the build-up to the 2007 Polokwane conference that ushered in the disastrous presidency of Jacob Zuma, relations between former president Thabo Mbeki and his secretary general, Kgalema Motlanthe, had broken down. The Zuma faction exploited the situation with the infamous “Browse Mole’’ report.
After initially rubber-stamping the first few years of the Zuma presidency that set the tone for the pillaging that would follow in his latter and more desperate years, Magashule’s predecessor Gwede Mantashe became much more of an obstacle to his presidency. Through those tumultuous years, the sanctity of the ANC president was preserved.
Where Ace has taken the fight is unprecedented. Whether the ANC chooses to expel him or is cowed into kicking the can down the road, it’s unlikely that the party can survive this without further damage.
Since its return from exile, the ANC has suspended a number of senior — and highly popular — leaders and recalled others from office.
But it has never before taken the step of suspending a serving secretary general or member of its top six.
And when the party has taken steps against popular members, splinter groups have developed to rival the ANC.
In 1996, the party suspended and eventually expelled General Bantu Holomisa, who had been the most popular choice for its NEC, for giving evidence to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that former Transkei chief minister Stella Sigcau had collected a R50 000 bribe from hotel magnate Sol Kerzner.
His expulsion gave birth to the United Democratic Movement, which took seats in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal and which was to fight a bloody war with the ANC in the Richmond area in KwaZulu-Natal between 1996 and 1999.
When Thabo Mbeki was recalled by the ANC in September 2008, he later resigned as president of the country, sparking arguably one of the greatest crises in the history of the party.
A significant number of his supporters, most notably former ANC national chairperson Mosiuoa Lekota and former Gauteng chairperson Mbhazima Shilowa, left the party en masse and formed the Congress of the People.
In November 2011 the ANC suspended its then ANC Youth League president, Julius Malema, and several of his comrades, for five years for causing disunity and bringing the party into disrepute. Malema, along with his deputy Floyd Shivambu, would go on to form the Economic Freedom Fighters, now South Africa’s third-largest opposition party.
It’s too early to say what will emerge from this most recent impasse in the party that has been battered by factional battles inspired by the spoils of power since 1994. But with Zuma still spoiling for a war with the new powers-that-be in Luthuli House as he faces his own legal battles, the less popular Magashule has a powerful ally.
This mixture of popular personalities at odds with each other, a grapple for the heart of the party and the unprecedented events of the past few days will leave a new chink in the timeline of the century-old ANC.