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Power shift at Luthuli House

The ANC’s censure of Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans (MKMVA) spokesperson Carl Niehaus this week indicates a shift in power at the party’s Luthuli House headquarters as it moves to finalise “stand-aside” guidelines that could pave the way for secretary general Ace Magashule’s removal from office.

While pressure appears to be building on Magashule to stand down, he, in turn, has criticised Niehaus — one of his fiercest allies and a vehement backer of former president Jacob Zuma — in a bid to distance himself from Niehaus’s public attacks on the ANC leadership.

This week Niehaus, who is an ANC employee and not an elected office-bearer, was given notice of the party’s intent to suspend him after he lashed out at deputy secretary general Jessie Duarte on social media. 

Their clash has placed Magashule — in whose office Niehaus was employed in 2019 — under further pressure. The relationship between Magashule and Duarte is also understood to have soured. They were both on the slate led by Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma at Nasrec in 2017, in her failed bid for the party presidency. Magashule was elected secretary general and Duarte won the deputy secretary general post. 

Duarte has increasingly taken a conciliatory role in the party, rather than pushing a factional position, which appears to have placed her on a collision course with Niehaus and Magashule.

The fallout comes as the realignment of the Nasrec-era factions has begun in earnest ahead of the party’s mid-term national general council meeting this year, and the ANC’s elective national conference, scheduled for December 2022. 

Key backers of the Magashule slate in the provinces, including the KwaZulu-Natal leaders and several national executive council (NEC) members, have now thrown their weight behind President Cyril Ramaphosa and the “unity” leadership nationally. And some of Ramaphosa’s former backers, including Lindiwe Sisulu, who collapsed her 2017 presidential bid, have begun to coalesce with the Magashule faction. Lobbies around treasurer general Paul Mashatile are also trying to build a presidential campaign on his behalf in the provinces.

In a TV interview at the weekend, Duarte dismissed Niehaus as lacking seniority in the party and affirmed the NEC’s stand-aside ruling.

The NEC had told its top six to finalise the guidelines by its next meeting, scheduled for Friday, January 22. On Tuesday the meeting was postponed until February, and an NEC lekgotla will be held on Friday.

The ANC top six officials’ report on the stand-aside resolution will not be presented at the lekgotla but will be dealt with at the full NEC meeting in February. This would allow the report, which is not yet finalised, to be presented to the party’s national working committee first.

The lekgotla will focus on the Covid-19 crises, the local government elections, party unity and the implementation of the Covid-19 economic recovery plan. 

Niehaus’s proposed suspension is unlikely to be discussed because the matter is between Luthuli House and an employee, rather than an elected official of the party. 

Magashule also appears to have cut his ally loose, ordering the MKMVA spokesperson to stop making divisive statements in his name. In a letter to Niehaus in October, Magashule placed Niehaus on notice over his “divisive” public comments.

“I have observed, with concern, that you are involved in activities that create the impression that you act on instructions from me. I wish to distance myself from your remarks regarding the NEC, of which I am a member,” Magashule said.

He told Niehaus that the ANC resolutions regarding “radical economic transformation” were not the “dominion” of the so-called RET forces, on behalf of which the latter had been claiming to speak.

“Any attempt to create such an impression is wrong, creates disunity within the ANC, and as such must be repudiated. Accordingly, I distance myself from any and all activities which cause disunity in my name,” Magashule said in the letter.

The remarkable censure of Niehaus by Magashule took place a few weeks before the former Free State premier was arrested on corruption charges relating to the Free State asbestos scandal and appeared to have been the result of increasing criticism of his role in protecting Niehaus. 

A senior ANC member, who asked not to be named, said: “An ANC staff member cannot be allowed to verbally attack elected officials. The SG [secretary general] has been protecting Carl all along and has been under pressure to call him to order.” 

Despite the censure by Magashule, Niehaus was at the court in November for his boss’s bail application. He had a heated confrontation with police who denied him access to the courtroom. Magashule’s next day in court is on  19 February.

Magashule and Duarte’s apparent rift is believed to have begun after November 2019 when the latter riled against the alleged “tribalistic and racist” slant the ANC had taken. 

A source with knowledge of proceedings said the rift was based on Magashule apparently forgoing the ANC’s non-racialism mantra. 

“I would say she’s [Duarte’s] a relatively principled person. Magashule is a thug. She also doesn’t like their pseudo-African nationalism. You remember, she’s raised it before; the exclusion or marginalisation of other black people,” the source said. The insider was referring to an address Duarte gave in Soweto in November 2019 when, according to an IOL report, she criticised the organisation for forgetting about other black people, and focusing only on black Africans. 

“We have almost become tribalists in the way we present ourselves. We are racist in the ANC because we marginalise people who are not black African people, keep them out of the ANC at all costs,” she was quoted as saying. “[And] put one or two there as tokens so that we can say ‘mara ja, you know, there is uJessie apha [here] representing’.” 

On Tuesday Niehaus was served with a notice from ANC general manager Febe Potgieter-Gqubule of the party’s intention to suspend him, and gave him 48 hours to show cause why he should not be suspended on full pay pending a misconduct hearing into his attack on Duarte in a social media post. He was meant to have responded by Thursday.

Niehaus had previously been issued with a written warning from the ANC in October 2019 over his public comments.

In the letter to Niehaus, which the Mail & Guardian has seen, Potgieter-Gqubule said Niehaus had been advised “on more than one occasion” that his public statements and social media posts were “unbecoming of someone working in this high office”, which was responsible for driving and coordinating the work of all party structures.

Potgieter-Gqubule said Niehaus’s attack on Duarte in his statement, issued on social media on 14  January, “crosses all boundaries expected from an ANC employee, particularly someone of your seniority”. She said that his personal attack on Duarte, particularly in the statement, was a “serious violation” of the ANC personnel policy manual.

Niehaus did not respond to calls from the M&G

ANC spokesperson Pule Mabe would not comment on the matter, saying that it was an internal one. He did clarify that the intention to suspend Niehaus applied only to his Luthuli House post and not his party membership. Niehaus also remained the MKMVA spokesperson, Mabe said.

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