/ 10 July 2023

Magashule vs Mbalula: Icons of South Africa’s leadership malaise

Anc Executive Committee Meeting At St George Hotel
Former ANC secretary general Ace Magashule.

How much significance should we read into Ace Magashule’s expulsion from the ANC, and will it have ripple effects on coalition possibilities for the 2024 elections? A look at June’s news coverage of the ruling party raises these questions, and reminds us of the deep moral gutter South African politics has descended into.

Two men dominate coverage of the ANC in my database of June’s top online news stories from IOL, News24 and TimesLive: Magashule, the party’s former secretary-general, and his successor, Fikile Mbalula. The names of both men show a strong statistical association with the word “ANC” in these news articles. Thus although Mbalula and Magashule are bitterly at odds with each other, both are used to paint the picture of a party in desperate moral decline. 

Magashule’s axing from the ANC made the word “expelled” another strong association with the ANC in June’s news. His expulsion has been a long time coming. He was arrested in November 2020 for his role in the Free State asbestos scandal, which cost taxpayers R225 million, and is currently out on bail. He refused to step aside from his party position and instead tried to suspend his own party leader, Cyril Ramaphosa.  

To add to all this, it is alleged that during Magashule’s tenure as Free State premier, the provincial government dished out close to R1 million a year each for three of its officials and another private individual to study for an executive master’s in business administration at a university in Washington DC. A week after Magashule was kicked out of the ANC, Ramaphosa approved a Special Investigating Unit inquiry into these bursaries.  

In response, Magashule has played an old Zuma-esque card, claiming a political conspiracy against him, saying that “all allegations against him are politically motivated, given his political beliefs, which were poles apart from that of the president and his allies who now dominate the ANC’s national executive committee, the party’s highest decision-making body”. His blaming of the Ramaphosa camp is one of the reasons the word “allies” is strongly associated with the ANC in June’s news.

As a recent Mail & Guardian editorial pointed out, Magashule is exactly the kind of corrupt leader the ANC should be giving the boot.

One of the first reactions of Magashule’s supporters to his expulsion was to burn ANC T-shirts, causing the word “shirts” to show a strong association with the ANC’s name in the news. In South Africa, political party T-shirts are frequently mentioned in the news as symbols of identity and loyalty, as I found out during my PhD research on the Daily Sun’s coverage of political parties in 2015. At the same time, Magashule’s supporters in his Free State heartland decorated a coffin with Mbalula’s name on it, saying that the expulsion of their leader would be the death of the ANC.  Magashule himself did nothing to rein them in.

ANC secretary general Fikile Mbalula during a briefing at Luthuli House.

In a foul-mouthed tirade, Mbalula retorted, “There is no one who is going to kill the ANC, even those who wear party T-shirts saying they are ANC, only for them to go and burn the same T-shirts.”  Ramaphosa had asked Mbalula to meet Magashule on Tuesday 27 June, but following these antics, Mbalula called off the meeting.

Mbalula himself is now under the spotlight for possible corrupt dealings. Affidavits have been produced claiming that he took a loan of R3 million from what was supposed to be National Lottery grant money to help him buy a luxury house in Bryanston, Johannesburg.  As yet the details of whether the loan really existed and what happened to the house, which now has a preservation order on it from the Special Tribunal, are unclear. As an editorial comment from GroundUp, which broke the story, says, “In the best-case scenario Mbalula did not act corruptly in relation to the Bryanston house. But he unequivocally showed poor judgment in getting involved with the people who have now written affidavits implicating him.”

Meanwhile, Magashule says he has started talks with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), United Democratic Movement (UDM) and Patriotic Alliance with a view to joining them. The possibility of starting his own party has also not been ruled out. He has claimed that he has already influenced voters in a small Free State town, probably Fateng Tse Ntsho near Paul Roux in the Free State’s Dihlabeng local municipality, to vote for the EFF in an April by-election, resulting in the party winning the ward.  

News24 reported “that one of the conditions that Magashule has placed on the table, whether he joins the EFF or forms his own party, is that he wants like-minded parties, mainly those formed by former ANC members such as Cope and the UDM as well as those that have similar goals such as the ATM [African Transformation Movement] and the Patriotic Alliance to form a coalition that would challenge the ANC”.  Such discussion of possible alliances in the 2024 elections made “coalition” another word strongly associated with the ANC in online news from June. As News24 points out, such a coalition could threaten the DA’s ‘moonshot pact’ too.

And so Magashule has become a political wildcard that could reshuffle the coalition possibilities ahead of the elections. In my view, any opposition party would be crazy to welcome him. Although he is clearly a wily politician, the size of his following beyond the Free State is unclear. More importantly, Magashule’s presence would erode any pretence a party could have of opposing corruption and state capture. If the EFF accepted Magashule’s condition and started looking to form a coalition with other opposition parties rather than the ANC, such a coalition would probably be doomed to failure. 

What we can learn from South Africa’s post-apartheid history is that voting patterns do change, but they change slowly. This means that if the ANC dips below 50% in 2024, it is likely that either a ruling coalition would need to include the ANC, or it would have to be made up of almost all the opposition parties, in other words, a Democratic Alliance-EFF-plus-plus coalition. The policy differences between the DA and EFF and disintegration of previous DA-EFF attempts at cooperation in municipalities makes such a coalition unlikely.

But what the Magashule/Mbalula saga does highlight is the moral bankruptcy of many of our current political leaders. The fact that parties are lining up to attract a disgraced political strongman out on bail to join them speaks volumes about their lack of principles.  The fact that his successor in the ANC’s powerful position of secretary general has been implicated in possible corruption and obvious poor judgment does not inspire confidence either. And when leadership is unethical or incompetent, it is the poor and most vulnerable who suffer the most. South Africa needs and deserves far better leadership than this.

Ian Siebörger is a senior lecturer in the department of linguistics and applied language studies in the faculty of humanities at Rhodes University.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.