Why Ace is no Jacob Zuma

Magashule finds himself fighting for political survival without a real strategy

Old friends: Then president Jacob Zuma and then Free State premier Ace Magashule on the campaign trail in 2014. Picture: James Oatway
Old friends: Then president Jacob Zuma and then Free State premier Ace Magashule on the campaign trail in 2014. Picture: James Oatway

However much Ace Magashule might want it to be true, we should never liken him to the Prince of Nkandla as we consider his potential to wage a political comeback. 

On Friday, Magashule lodged a court bid to overturn the ANC’s decision to suspend him as secretary-general, arguing that it infringed the principle that someone is innocent until proven guilty.

It might seem that Magashule is treading the same path  Jacob Zuma walked in the months after he was axed as deputy president in 2005 — time he used to successfully reframe himself as a victim, which propelled him to the ANC presidency in 2007 and the Union Buildings two years later.

But the fact is, the political environment that catapulted Zuma to the helm of our politics more than a decade ago does not exist now.

And Magashule is far less politically skilled than Zuma, so he remains unable to cash in on the political environment we do have.

Back in 2005, former president Thabo Mbeki fired Zuma, after his financial adviser Schabir Shaik was convicted of corruption related to the infamous arms deal.

At that point, Zuma was even ready to step aside as the ANC’s deputy president too, but his supporters revolted at the party’s 2005 National General Council (a midterm review meeting) and overwhelmingly insisted Zuma stay on as party deputy president.

Magashule never had this sort of caché in the ANC. And the level of his ANC support, as a result, is entirely different.

Part of this is historical: when the ANC emerged from exile, Magashule was considered an “ice boy” — a common phrase in our colloquial political parlance, where the underling is tasked with fetching ice for the champagne-guzzling political bosses. 

By contrast, Zuma was an established political A-lister by the time the ANC “came back”.

As someone who had served time on Robben Island, and a leader in the ANC’s underground structures in the 1980s, Zuma was part of a prominent leadership band playing second fiddle only to the likes of Nelson Mandela and OR Tambo.


Another reason for the difference is the extent of their respective political base.

Today, Magashule finds himself fighting for political survival without a real strategy.

Last week he resorted to cold calling journalists, trying to convince them that, despite his suspension letter, he really was still the ANC’s secretary-general. 

Zuma, however, played a far smarter hand in the lead-up to his defeat of Mbeki at the “battle of Polokwane” in 2007, thanks in part to his considerable base.

Unionists, communists, youth and women operators in the Tripartite Alliance did the spadework for him.

Zuma would never have had to call journalists to tell them he was still the ANC’s number 2.

In contrast to his immense credibility problems today, Zuma in 2005 was far more respected in the alliance.

He positioned himself as a voiceless victim, and Mbeki’s opponents were drawn to him as the only man around whom a powerful campaign to unseat Mbeki could be built.


Zwelinzima Vavi, Cosatu’s secretary-general, compared Zuma’s comeback to a “tsunami” and he, along with SACP boss Blade Nzimande, ANC Youth League president Fikile Mbalula and footsoldiers like Julius Malema, worked to ensure this happened. 

The Zuma faction created no-go zones for Mbeki and his allies, who, remarkably, were booed when they pitched for public events and rallies.


It’s a different world from where Magashule finds himself today.

In effect, he has gone to war without an army: he’s out there on his own.

Magashule looks foolish and ill-equipped in the face of a strategy in which he has been given enough rope to allow him to hang himself.

By the time the inevitable happens, Magashule’s political demise will have been widely accepted — and he’ll hold no currency even among the camp that would like to weaken President Cyril Ramaphosa’s faction.

But if Magashule’s fate is destined to be entirely different to Zuma, it is also true that both their political prospects have been deeply entwined for years.

It was only after 2008, when Zuma became president, that Magashule was picked as premier of the Free State.

During the Mbeki era, he had been blocked from leading the provincial government, despite his firm grip as a subnational party baron.  

And Zuma’s comprehensive fall from grace hasn’t helped Magashule one bit.

The brand of Radical Economic Transformation (RET)  which has become synonymous with both Zuma and Magashule  has lost its spark as an effective political philosophy, and now just seems to be nothing more than an umbrella for the rogues.

While some elements in the media have blown up the Magashule-Ramaphosa battle as though it is a fight between equal figures, this is not remotely true.

Instead, what we are watching is a suave   Ramaphosa, allowing a country bumpkin to embarrass himself.


Ramaphosa has used this moment to establish himself as a politician who plays the long game.

His conflict-averse nature may have proved endlessly frustrating to even his most ardent supporters, but it has worked in allowing Magashule enough space to expose himself as a liability — even for those seeking to challenge the president,

What has helped is that Ramaphosa has not created many enemies since becoming ANC president in December 2017.

His calculating nature (or risk aversion) meant that Magashule ended up being the one stoking the fire of conflict. 

Of course, Ramaphosa’s leadership is not without weakness.

He moves way too slowly in implementing reforms in policy and institutions, he avoids leading from the front, and prefers to get the “collective” to take the tough decisions.

This creates a sense of inertia in government.

The upside of this approach for Ramaphosa is that he gets very little blood on his coat. 

The downside, however, is that this lack of clarity over the ANC’s political centre makes it seem that the likes of Magashule are worthy political challengers  — when the truth is, they have no political backing, skills or public appeal.



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