South Africa’s governing African National Congress (ANC) party has suspended its Secretary-General, Elias “Ace” Magashule, over graft charges in a move seen as a political victory for President Cyril Ramaphosa in the divided party.
But a defiant Magashule, who is the first top party official to be temporarily forced out under a new policy aimed at turning the page on a litany of graft scandals, said he was not going anywhere.
Instead, he said he was suspending Ramaphosa from his position as ANC president.
Magashule, 61, was given a 30-day ultimatum on March 30 to step aside after being charged with embezzling public funds while he was premier of the Free State province.
He ignored the deadline and refused to resign voluntarily, forcing the party to suspend him.
“You are hereby temporarily suspended with effect from 3 May 2021 until the final outcome of your court proceedings,” his deputy Jessie Duarte informed Magashule of his suspension in a letter.
The letter, dated Monday and leaked to the media on Wednesday, said the decision to suspend him would be “in the best interest of the organisation”.
But Magashule, countered in a letter Wednesday night sent to Ramaphosa and Duarte, saying he was “appealing this unconstitutional suspension” and that until the appeal was heard he would keep his job.
In a dramatic and strange outburst, he said he was invoking powers vested in him as the Secretary-General of the ANC, to “summarily” suspend Ramaphosa.
But the ANC immediately issued a statement saying its resolution stands and asked Magashule to “respect” the party’s decisions and “subject himself to the discipline of the organization”.
Magashule has been indicted on charges of corruption and fraud, or theft and money laundering, along with around a dozen other co-accused.
The ANC of Nelson Mandela, which has been ruling the country since the end of white minority rule in 1994, has been at pains to clean up its image, marred by years of graft.
– ‘Turning point’ –
David Lewis, head of the Corruption Watch NGO, hailed Magashule’s removal as the “first really strong sign that the ANC is prepared to clean up its own ranks”.
The suspension is a “turning point” for the ANC, setting a “serious precedent” that will be difficult to ignore in future, said political analyst Mcebisi Ndletyana.
“It is a win for the ANC as a whole,” Ndletyana told AFP.
Magashule is to be paid his salary during his suspension but not permitted to represent the ANC or speak publicly about the party.
Charges against Magashule relate to public funds that were set aside to vet government-built housing with asbestos roofs in 2014 when he headed the provincial government, dubbed a “gangster state” in a book by investigative journalist Pieter-Louis Myburgh.
The hazardous roofs were never removed, and investigators believe that the equivalent of over $12 million (10 million euros) was pocketed.
Magashule was briefly arrested in November and granted bail on graft charges. He is next expected to appear before a high court in August.
His removal is seen as a first major political score for President Cyril Ramaphosa who first came to power in 2018 vowing to fight corruption when he succeeded the scandal-tainted Jacob Zuma.
“The suspension will bring some credibility to the president’s longstanding pledge of addressing corruption within the ANC,” said Aleix Montana, analyst at risk intelligence firm Verisk Maplecroft.
But analysts note that Magashule, a renowned political infighter with a permanent scowl, a Zuma confidant with an entrenched following within the party, will deepen the factionalism woes in the ANC.
The historic party has been suffering a decline in support in elections in recent years. The country goes to local government polls in October this year.
John Steenhuisen, leader of the main opposition Democratic Alliance party, said it was not enough to just suspend Magashule, demanding that the party makes sure that “he is put behind bars.”