Melanie Verwoerd: Why Ramaphosa can't remove Magashule

Any step against Ace Magashule would have to be carefully considered by the broader collective in the ANC NEC and NWC, writes Melanie Verwoerd.

If there is one thing that Cyril Ramaphosa must regret more than anything, it is the decision not to challenge the outcome of the election for the position of secretary general at the ANC's Nasrec conference in 2017.

Of course in hindsight we are all geniuses, and at the time he most probably thought that he could manage Ace Magashule. More importantly, he (correctly) felt that a recount of the vote would involve significant political risk.

Shortly after the result was announced at Nasrec, Supra Mahumapelo, who was a key player in the Zuma faction, walked into a room where I was sitting with some journalists. He made it very clear that should the Ramaphosa faction continue to question the Magashule result, they (the Zuma faction) would disrupt the conference and insist on a re-vote of all the positions. "We would also demand that those 220 delegates who were disqualified would be allowed back, then let's see who wins the president's position," he said.

Ramaphosa knew that this could happen and thus convinced his and Senzo Mchunu's supporters to let it be. However, over the last 15 months that decision has come back to haunt him – no more so than last week.

According to all accounts, Magashule and the little "broederbond" in his office changed the statement of the national executive committee (NEC) and added a few paragraphs relating to the mandate of the South African Reserve Bank (SARB), and punted the idea of "quantity (sic) easing". Magashule, Pule Mabe and Carl Niehaus of course deny this; all three are pleading total innocence together with the classic "my-twitter-account-was-hacked" excuse. (YAAAAWN!)

If it had not done so much damage to the economy, it would have been comical. Commentators and opposition parties have been quick to criticise Ramaphosa for not removing Magashule, thus implying an indecisiveness and weakness on the side of the president.

These criticisms, however, show a lack of understanding of the workings of the ANC. The ANC's constitution makes no provision for the president to remove any official. Unlike the Cabinet that is appointed by the president of the country and serves at his pleasure, the ANC office bearers or top 6 are not appointed by the ANC president. They are elected by the national conference of the ANC and therefore cannot just be removed by him. There are only two options if an office bearer needs to be removed before the next national conference: the courts or internal disciplinary proceedings.

If news reports are to be believed, it is highly likely that Magashule will find himself on the wrong side of the law at some stage. However, that would not necessarily mean an immediate end to his political career. The ANC has always maintained a strong commitment to "innocence until proven guilty" and Magashule would undoubtedly argue that point vociferously. At that stage it would be up to the NEC – not the president – to decide whether he should temporarily step down from his position.

The other option would be for the ANC to take disciplinary action against Magashule – let's call it the Malema route. They could argue that he has brought the organisation into disrepute and start formal disciplinary proceedings against him. Given the ANC's very thorough process to ensure fairness, this could take many months. Apart from the time it would take, this option is also fraught with danger.

Referring to Malema's expulsion from the ANC, Mathews Phosa once said to me: "You must be very careful with that kind of thing. When you throw comrades into the dustbin, they grow into big rats which come out and bite you."

Magashule still has significant support in the ANC and would undoubtedly, in pure Zuma-style, mobilise people to support him, should the ANC take action against him. The ANC would have to carefully negotiate their way around that, in order not to create a bigger problem in the process.

So, any step against Magashule would have to be carefully considered by the broader collective in the NEC and national working committee (NWC). As far as I could ascertain, it has never before happened that a member of the top 6 has been removed, which proves the complexity of the issue. 

One thing is for sure – as much as many people would like to see the back of Magashule, it is not just up to the president and thus, is unlikely to happen soon.

- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.