When South African investigators seized a fleet of luxury cars from a suspect in a high-level political corruption case this month, a Porsche Cayenne, a top-end Bentley and a red Ferrari were among their haul.
An investigation into corruption in a province run by Ace Magashule, the secretary-general of the ruling African National Congress, appears to be coming to the boil with a string of arrests, including that of the owner of the luxury cars. Although not senior figures, the suspects have close ties to the ANC and have been charged with corruption and other crimes.
Mr Magashule, one of the country’s most powerful politicians, has not been arrested but the drama underlines the stakes for South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, as prosecutors catch up with a decade of corruption under Jacob Zuma, his predecessor, that hollowed out institutions including law enforcement agencies.
For many, Mr Magashule embodies the Zuma era and the arrests illustrate how Mr Ramaphosa’s battle to root out corruption in Africa’s most industrialised economy has become a fight for control of the ruling party, the dominant political force in South Africa.
With the economy in a coronavirus-related recession, Mr Ramaphosa admitted in an August letter to party members that “there is a sense of anger and disillusionment at reports of corruption in our response”, and that the party was “Accused No. 1” in the dock.
“The fight against corruption is on its own an attempt to regain control over the ANC and displace the crooked members and leaders who have compromised the credibility and moral standing of the ANC in society,” said Lukhona Mnguni, a political analyst.
As a lieutenant of Mr Zuma, Mr Magashule survived his boss’s downfall in 2018 to ascend the ranks of the ANC despite leading the Free State province when the Guptas, a business family close to the former president, were allegedly looting local funds including money for a state dairy project to help poor farmers. They deny wrongdoing. Other scandals have surrounded him, including the one over state contracts to clear asbestos that led to the recent arrests.
Mr Magashule teased last week that he would be arrested next. “It’s going to be a Hollywood-style type of thing,” he told the South African Independent Online outlet.
South Africa’s anti-corruption police unit swiftly denied it was planning any such raid and said the story about Mr Magashule had “a malicious intent to undermine the integrity of the organisation”.
The news report was “a pre-emptive strike of sorts” by Mr Magashule and “straight out of the playbook” of Mr Zuma to undermine the justice system in advance by making claims about his supposed imminent arrest, said Lawson Naidoo, executive secretary of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution, a non-profit body.
“It is quite clear that the investigations that [prosecutors] have been pursuing will, at some point, lead to Ace,” Mr Naidoo said. “This is an attempt to raise publicity” and mobilise Mr Magashule’s supporters to portray any eventual arrest as political, he added.
The ANC did not respond to a request for comment on Mr Magashule’s claims, but its youth league in the Free State said in a statement last week that “the ultimate plan is to create a political embarrassment to the secretary-general of the ANC through concocting allegations and have the court case against him”.
Some of this rhetoric is reminiscent of attacks on the Scorpions, an elite anti-graft unit that targeted Mr Zuma, before it was disbanded more than a decade ago, said Khaya Sithole, an independent analyst. Mr Zuma was seen as more charismatic and was better liked than Mr Magashule, he said.
The justice system is also less fragile than it was at the end of Mr Zuma’s rule. Shamila Batohi, the former International Criminal Court adviser appointed by Mr Ramaphosa two years ago to head the national prosecuting authority, has set up a special unit to investigate big corruption cases. This is now working with evidence from a concurrent judicial inquiry into claims of looting under Mr Zuma.
Ms Batohi told lawmakers last week that the latest prosecutions are a “tiny, tiny pinpoint on a massive iceberg” but also that “in the past, these cases might never have seen the inside of the court”.
The recent arrests represent “a remarkably important moment but we are still talking about prosecutions — not yet convictions”, Mr Sithole said.
And the stakes are high for Mr Ramaphosa, who could be the political casualty of any battle with Mr Magashule, who holds one of the most important positions in the ANC.
Even for the ANC leader to kick Mr Magashule out of his senior post would not be simple. Despite a commitment by the party that “those formally charged with corruption must immediately step aside from all official positions”, Mr Magashule is considered likely to resist stepping down on those terms if eventually accused of any wrongdoing as he is without a government position.
“The patronage networks developed through corruption and manipulation of procurement processes are strong, have existed for long and will not give in without a fight,” said Mr Mnguni. A move to arrest Mr Magashule “will trigger a political revolt from within the ANC structures”.
To oust Mr Magashule, Mr Ramaphosa would have to secure support in the ANC that he is not certain to win, Mr Sithole said. “It would be Ramaphosa’s last chance to show that he has control of the party. If he failed on that one, it would be a fatal flaw for him.”