The South African president’s attempts to reform the ruling African National Congress party received a massive boost on Wednesday when his most powerful adversary within the organisation was suspended.
President Cyril Ramaphosa has struggled to impose his authority on the ANC since taking power in 2018 and to purge corrupt officials from its ranks. An ongoing judicial inquiry has uncovered evidence of systemic misadministration and theft, while scandals involving Covid-19 relief funds have caused outrage.
Ace Magashule, the secretary general of the ANC, was served with a suspension letter after refusing to comply with an order to step down after being charged by public prosecutors in November in connection with an allegedly fraudulent $18m project to find and remove asbestos from homes in disadvantaged neighbourhoods in the Free State province.
Magahsule, 61, is seen as the leader of a faction within the ANC which rose to power under former president Jacob Zuma, who is now facing multiple corruption charges. Both have denied all charges of wrongdoing, which they say are politically motivated.
The ANC agreed in March that officials facing corruption charges would be required to step down until cleared with their suspensions reviewed every six months.
Many analysts maintain that reform within the ANC, in power since 1994, is necessary to halt the slide of the South African public finances.
Sub-Saharan Africa’s most developed country is struggling with a flagging economy, soaring unemployment and the continent’s worst outbreak of Covid-19.
“This is a very big moment, a very big victory. It has been a long time coming,” said Richard Calland, an associate professor at the University of Cape Town and political analyst. “It is testimony to Ramaphosa’s growing strength within the ANC and evidence of his careful, tactical approach to power … He has made sure the party is with him on this.”
Though he will not face a general election until 2024, Ramaphosa needs to receive the support of the ANC’s senior leaders at a key party conference next year to remain in power and potentially secure a second term.
The former businessman started his career as a labour activist under the racist apartheid regime and is seen as the leader of the party’s reformist wing.
“The second term is so important if South Africa is to rebuild its economy and repair broken institutions of government,” said Calland.
Magashule is one of the ANC’s top six most powerful officials, in charge of the day-to-day running of the party. Bongani Bongo, a former state security minister, and several other ANC figures were also suspended on Wednesday. Bongo, who faces a corruption and money-laundering trial next year, has said he will appeal against the decision, and also denies wrongdoing.
Daily reports of corruption investigations and allegations against ANC officials or other public functionaries has fuelled public anger.
South Africans have suffered years of country-wide power cuts as Eskom, the public electricity utility, struggles to maintain ageing power stations. Earlier this week local media reported efforts by senior managers to block legal investigation that had found $12bn worth of Eskom contracts “tainted by corruption or misconduct”.
“One of the things the ANC has successfully done in this country was to make us accept, even unwittingly, its consistent lowering of standards of leadership as though it were normal,” Nwabisa Makunga wrote in the Sowetan newspaper earlier this week.
Though successive elections have seen a steadily diminishing vote for the party once led by Nelson Mandela, opposition parties have been unable to mount any serious electoral challenge to the ANC’s dominance.