August 20, 2019

Ramaphosa fights corruption, but is one hand tied behind his back?

The Presidency’s moves can be blocked by secretary-general Ace Magashule, who is in charge of ANC structures, writes BEN TUROK. He argues President Cyril Ramaphosa wants to fight corruption, but there are pockets of resistance within the ANC.

Let us set aside any doubts about President Cyril Ramaphosa wanting to fight corruption in our state institutions. He has taken some important initial steps that indicate the direction he wishes to go. The real question is whether he has the power to do so.

Ramaphosa clearly has substantial power with respect to appointments at the top level of state institutions, but we now know that corruption has seeped down to some of the smallest municipalities, and it is not at all clear that the president’s wishes find any purchase there, and indeed even at provincial level.

I raise this issue because there is now abundant evidence that there are pockets of resistance to the exposure of corruption, and this includes the clique around former president Jacob Zuma, who are not afraid of supporting him publicly. Among these is no less than ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule. Their power lies within ANC structures rather than the state, and we can now see how quite fierce battles take place involving those structures.

To get a broad sense of the balance of power we have to go back to the original source of power within the ANC and the government. The constitution of the ANC gives local branches the basic power, which is conveyed upwards through two processes. First, branches elect delegates to national conference. The larger the branch, the more delegates. Second, branches make nominations for parliament and the provincial legislatures in what is called the list process.

The national conference elects the top six officials and the national executive (which will subsequently elect the smaller national working committee). The top six meet weekly and form the engine room of everything. At present it consists of Ramaphosa as president; David Mabuza, deputy president; Magashule; Jessie Duarte, deputy secretary-general; Gwede Mantashe, party chair; and Paul Mashathile, treasurer.

There is now abundant evidence that there are pockets of resistance to the exposure of corruption, and this includes the clique around former president Jacob Zuma, who are not afraid of supporting him publicly.

Ramaphosa has enormous power as president of the country. But Magashule also has a great deal of power as de facto head of Luthuli House, the ANC headquarters. I will examine each in turn.

As president, Ramaphosa appoints his cabinet and through his ministers is in control of the public service, army and police. He appoints the premiers of the provinces and through his ministers controls the state-owned enterprises.

As secretary-general, Magashule acts on behalf of the top six, but with considerable personal discretion. He oversees the provinces, the ANC in parliament and all ANC branches. He is in charge of all arrangements for national conferences and for national policy conferences in between the national conferences.

He is in charge of the list process for parliament and the provincial legislatures, acting with a list committee appointed by himself. The lists originate from branch nominations but then find their way through a complex process to the national list committee, which must base its decisions on the lists but is nevertheless able to exercise some discretion. For example, if an individual MP distinguished himself in parliament but was not nominated by his branch he could be included at the list stage.

Magashule also works in tandem with the deputy president, who is head of the deployment committee that places selected individuals in key positions throughout the state system. This includes heads of state-owned enterprises, the chief whip of parliament as well as chairs and whips of committees. This gives the secretary-general enormous power, especially over parliament since the chief whip reports regularly to him. It also sets the scene for potential conflict between a Zuma-aligned committee chair and the relevant minister appointed by Ramaphosa.

The ANC caucus in parliament is an important body, especially as it embraces cadres from across the country. This consists of all ANC MPs in the National Assembly and National Council of Provinces and meets every Thursday morning in the old assembly. It is chaired by a member appointed by the chief whip and is administered from the latter’s office.

Caucus is normally briefed by ministers on forthcoming legislation, which is open for discussion. It is also addressed periodically by the secretary-general and president, who use the occasion to align MPs with the thinking in the national executive and Luthuli House generally. Members are free to give their views, but inevitably there is considerable pressure not to step out of line.

One other committee is important but rarely referred to. This is the political committee headed by the deputy president and consisting of several ministers, the chief whip and a few selected MPs. This committee meets informally, has no secretary and no minutes, and is only convened when there is a serious political issue in parliament. Its function is to give political guidance but also to assert leadership where needed. It obviously reports to the secretary-general.

Since the ANC is a large organisation and embraces people with different ideological preferences, there are conflicting views and loyalties, as we see playing out in the reports of the public protector, for instance. Then there is the evidence at the Zondo commission and the possibility of adverse findings against Zuma, which are likely to lead to tensions. This will also ultimately find its way to parliament. How will Ramaphosa exert his influence? Through his ministers or through direct appeals to caucus?

Finally, it is often argued that MPs swear allegiance to the constitution and should therefore at all times defend the rights of ordinary citizens. But MPs also swear allegiance to party constitutions and there may well be a choice to be made. The ANC structure I have set out above shows clearly that party discipline may well override other considerations. This becomes even more sensitive when the person leading the state is in disagreement with the person running the governing party, as appears to be the situation at present. The danger for SA is that it could lead to paralysis.

Ben Turok, an ANC MP for 20 years, is now director of the Institute for African Alternatives and editor of New Agenda journal.

This article was first published in Business Day.

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