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The Man Who Stole South Africa
Cyril Ramaphosa has pledged a new dawn as president, but the secretary-general of his own party has built a web of corruption that thrives on darkness.
On the day of the murder, Tshepo Thabane had been at his usual spot on the corner of South Road and Bowling Avenue since dawn. Like the other regular beggars who had made this intersection their base, the young man from the nearby Johannesburg township of Alexandra usually arrived in time for the great procession of luxury sedans and SUVs that trickled past toward nearby Sandton’s opulent business district each weekday. His earnings from that morning’s peak-hour traffic had been pretty good. With noon fast approaching, Thabane, a pseudonym, felt his mind starting to drift toward thoughts of lunch. As he counted the coins in his pocket, a gray Bentley Continental GT driving south toward him caught his attention. The impressive machine stood out even among the other expensive cars Thabane was accustomed to seeing at this crossing.
Meanwhile, Thabane noticed that a silver Audi A4 had snuck into the slipway that carries Bowling Avenue’s traffic into South Road going in the opposite direction, away from Sandton and toward Alexandra. It had come to a halt less than 50 feet from where the Bentley waited at the traffic light.
Then two men got out of the Audi, brandishing handguns. The car had tinted windows, but Thabane could make out the silhouette of a third man who remained waiting behind the steering wheel. The two men walked toward the stationary Bentley. Wearing a gray hoodie, the shorter of the two gunmen positioned himself in front of the sleek sedan. His accomplice, a tall, slender man wearing a blue top, stood right next to the driver’s window.
“Open the door!” Thabane heard the taller man shout in English. The Bentley driver understandably disobeyed. The taller gunman then tried to break the Bentley’s window by smashing it with his weapon, but he was unsuccessful. The driver hit the gas, forcing the gunman in gray to hop out of the way. The Bentley smashed into the car in front of it. That car’s driver panicked and sped off. The Bentley, however, failed to follow it across the intersection. The engine had either stalled or the driver was paralyzed by fear.
The taller man pointed his gun at the driver and, without hesitation, fired off a few shots in quick succession. Thabane couldn’t see if the bullets hit the driver, but he somehow knew the driver was done for. The two gunmen strolled back to the Audi, their relaxed pace in step with the nonchalance with which they had just carried out their grim task.
The body of Phikolomzi Ignatius “Igo” Mpambani, who was 37 at the time of his violent death on June 20, 2017, was placed on the traffic island next to the Bentley and covered with a silver first-aid blanket. Thabane would not have known, but the first responders found a soft cooler bag bearing the logo of a major supermarket chain in the footwell of the front passenger seat. Dark blue, it had the word “goodness” printed on one side. It was stuffed not with fresh groceries but with several stacks of banknotes held together with rubber bands—just shy of half a million rand ($35,000). There was another 500,000 rand in the trunk. This second stash was also made up of several bundles of banknotes, but instead of being stuffed in a cooler bag, this money simply lay loose among some documents and a briefcase.
When Thabane later heard about the 1 million rand that had been found in the car, he was by no means surprised that the gunmen had left behind all of that money. The young men who shot Mpambani weren’t there to steal something; they were the type of men who got paid to kill someone.
As the months went by, Mpambani’s death featured less and less in conversations among the community of beggars and job-seekers at Thabane’s intersection and in the media, too. A certain Elias Sekgobelo Magashule, for one, would have been relieved that Mpambani’s demise did not draw too much attention. The man popularly known as “Ace” intended to be elected to one of the most powerful political positions in South Africa at the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party’s elective conference later that year. Any investigation into his murky dealings with the slain man would have posed a serious threat to his political ambitions.
The assassination in Sandton came four years after I had begun to look into a company with alleged links to Magashule. One Friday evening in mid-2013, my cellphone rang just as I was about to put a few takeaway pizzas in my car. Curious journalists rarely ignore phone calls, so I answered. The person on the other end of the line introduced himself as Ace Magashule, the premier of the Free State province.
At the time, I was researching a contract awarded to a Bloemfontein-based company for organizing the annual South African Sport Awards. The company’s owner was said to be closely connected to top government leaders and had apparently clinched the contract in an irregular manner.
Magashule tried to convince me that his administration and the company in question had nothing to hide. High-level government leaders do not normally contact young, relatively unknown journalists, at least not directly. I got the sense that Magashule was worried about what I might uncover. He had every reason to be worried about nosy journalists. My research and that of other journalists has revealed that for many years he served as the head of a well-organized network of corruption in his home province.
His anxiety must have been considerably more manageable during his stint as provincial premier when Jacob Zuma was South Africa’s president—a time when the government’s law enforcement arm become as ineffective as a gangrenous limb. There was no need for the likes of Magashule to be concerned about being investigated or brought to book; under Zuma, he enjoyed impunity.
The Free State, the province Magashule led before he became ANC secretary-general, was the site of some of the most egregious corruption ploys by the powerful Gupta family, which used bribery to gain influence, win contracts, and plunder state resources. A failed agriculture project in the small Free State town of Vrede earned the Guptas more than 300 million rand ($21 million) in revenues while sidelining the initiative’s intended beneficiaries. All indications are that the Free State also served as a useful stepping stone for the family’s media interests while Magashule was at the province’s helm.
Public sector looters and their private sector accomplices in provinces like the Free State were left to execute their schemes without drawing too much attention. More than a few sources in the Free State’s political setup referred to Magashule as “Mr. 10 Percent” for allegedly demanding a 10 percent cut from each government contract in the province.
Magashule had been extremely careful in his alleged dealings with contractors and other businesspeople, some of his former associates told me. Kickbacks due to him from government contracts would be paid in cash, they all alleged, ensuring that any financial links to dodgy contractors were kept to a minimum. Furthermore, Magashule apparently often used trusted security guards, drivers, and other aides to do his dirty work. He also avoided electronic communication and preferred to discuss “funny money” and related matters in person.
In April 2018, I began to examine a multimillion “asbestos audit” contract awarded by the Free State’s Department of Human Settlements. I linked the contract to Mpambani, the high-flying tender mogul who had been gunned down in Sandton in 2017. In 2014, Mpambani and a coterie of businesspeople, politicians, and government officials apparently began to mastermind the looting of more than R250 million ($17 million) from the Free State government’s coffers. Based on several records, timelines, and interviews with sources, it seems clear that Magashule became a key figure in this saga. The leaked documents and emails fueled suspicions that the then-premier was closely linked to Mpambani and that he had benefited from the asbestos audit.
I stayed on Mpambani’s trail and eventually got hold of a bulky stack of emails, bank records, and related material that detailed some of the murdered businessman’s dealings. The documents suggest that Magashule may have received as much as 10 million rand ($690,000) from the deal.
Magashule was given many opportunities to comment on the issues explored in the book from which this essay is drawn. He chose not to make use of it. More than 60 questions sent to ANC spokesperson Dakota Legoete for the attention of his boss remained unanswered.
In December 2017, political spectators watched—some with horror, others with bemusement—as, at its 54th national conference, the ANC enacted the political equivalent of shooting itself in the foot with an anti-aircraft gun. The election of Magashule as the party’s new secretary-general ensured that allies of the disgraced Zuma would continue to besmirch the party’s name and reputation. Their presence in the ANC’s coveted and largely untouchable top six leadership posts would also jeopardize new President Cyril Ramaphosa’s so-called new dawn, meant to revive the party’s founding values.
Indeed, Magashule embodies the ruling party’s glaring departure from the vision for the ANC and South Africa upheld by earlier leaders such as Albert Luthuli, Oliver Tambo, and Nelson Mandela. The elevation of Magashule to one of the party’s most powerful positions reaffirms the organization’s reckless nonchalance with regard to its image and reputation.
The fact that Magashule and other high-profile people have managed to escape censure for their alleged crimes for so long leads me to a disturbing conclusion: What we have witnessed since at least 2009 is not the work of mere criminal elements within the ANC but rather the effect of the outright criminalization of the party as a whole. Magashule and others were able to do so much damage to the ANC and the country because the party failed to stop them.
Magashule’s stranglehold on the Free State was not just economic; it was political. He and his allies clung to power in the Free State through undemocratic means. As premier of the Free State, he presided over the provincial government’s financial affairs with a despot’s flair for centralization. Former and current officials, erstwhile confidants, senior and mid-level officials, and businesspeople in the province all attest to a frightening executive environment in which “the fourth floor,” a reference to the premier’s office, controlled every stream, brook, and tributary of the Free State’s cash flows.
“There wasn’t a contract in the Free State that Ace didn’t know about. Whether it was for supplying toilet paper to municipalities or building roads for the province, he had a say in which contractors got the work,” claimed one of Magashule’s closest former allies. He took a hands-on approach to the appointment of key officials in every sphere of government. Magashule apparently had the final say when positions with even the faintest financial function needed to be filled. A growing number of former and current political insiders are now willing to talk about his ruthless rule in his home province, but their claims are not new.
As far back as 2013, Mpho Ramakatsa, one of the few ANC members who dared challenge the Magashule bloc’s political hegemony, warned about the then-premier’s behavior. “There is no single municipality in the Free State that is independent of Magashule’s influence,” Ramakatsa told the Mail & Guardian in May that year. “He appoints everybody from heads of department to a cleaner. Those that do not toe the line are taken out [fired]. He has also centralized procurement in his office precisely to control the economy of the Free State. This makes him indispensable to a lot of people.”
To maintain his control of the provincial government, he needed to remain equally powerful in his guise as leader of the ANC in the Free State. He clung to the position of provincial chairman for a record number of years and seemed proud to be known as the ANC’s “longest-serving provincial chairman.”
His victories at so many successive provincial conferences inevitably convinced commentators and journalists that he enjoyed near-universal support in the Free State. Over the years, the media consistently reported on his “popularity in the province” and described him as “popular at grassroots level.” And so a myth was perpetuated that Magashule remained in power because he had authentic and widespread support from the 300-odd ANC branches in his home province.
However, there is ample evidence to the effect that Magashule and his allies at least partly ensured their political domination through dirty tricks. Developments that unfolded soon after the ANC’s 2012 provincial conference especially suggested that the provincial leadership had virtually no respect for the party’s most fundamental democratic processes. Indeed, a majority of South Africa’s highest court found that ANC members at many of the province’s branches were effectively disenfranchised. As a result, the voices and votes of those who sought to bring about political change in the province were discounted at the very conferences where the Magashule bloc emerged as victors. In some instances, would-be challengers were neutered through intimidation and even violence.
All of this relates to the stick end of Magashule’s political scheming. But he and his allies wielded plenty of carrots too. Branch members who stayed on their side were treated to luxury accommodation and other perks during provincial conferences. To fund this largesse, Magashule leaned on companies that got contracts from his provincial government. As ANC chairman, Magashule led a party apparatus that consistently decimated the century-old liberation movement’s proud tradition of participatory democracy.
There are strong indications that Magashule had no qualms about getting his hands dirty to help keep his bloc in power. Dennis Bloem, the former long-serving ANC member from the Free State who later joined the opposition party COPE, claimed that Magashule effectively bought his way to the top of the ANC’s Free State hierarchy. “That man was not scared to produce money at ANC conferences,” he told me when we spoke about Magashule’s rise in the party’s ranks. “We saw him with cash, and this made some delegates very uncomfortable. … Some of these delegates were also put up in nice hotels or guesthouses, away from other party members. This was all done to buy their support.”
Even some of Magashule’s closest former allies admitted that the party’s democratic processes had been a farce. One of them made a startling admission during an interview in mid-2018. “I helped Ace to swing conferences and branches for years,” this former provincial executive committee member told me. “We bought members. The capture started at the branches and then spread to the regional conferences and finally the provincial conferences.”
I spoke to a businessman whose firm secured contracts worth more than 50 million rand ($3.5 million) from the provincial government during Magashule’s time as premier. A day before the ANC’s 2012 provincial conference, my source transferred 200,000 rand ($14,000) to the hotel and conference center that was due to host the gathering. He showed me the proof of payment. He claims Magashule himself had issued the instruction to pay the hotel. In 2013, my source transferred just under 100,000 rand ($6,900) to a few guesthouses in and around town to accommodate conference delegates. He provided me with proof of payment for these transactions.
In late 2011, there were murmurs of a possible attempt by fed-up ANC members in the Free State to dismantle the hegemony of Magashule and his cohort. What apparently started as a band of disaffected party members in one region grew into a full-fledged faction, which became known as the Regime Change group. Far from being mere upstarts and opportunists, the Regime Changers included a former provincial chairperson, a provincial treasurer, and the national minister of sports.
The Regime Changers campaigned hard and were convinced that they would unseat Magashule and his allies. Across the province, the party’s members attended branch general meetings, where it was decided which delegates each branch would send to the provincial conference. This is the very foundation of the ANC’s internal democratic process, but there was trouble on the horizon.
Yet once again, the Magashule bloc emerged victorious. Magashule was re-elected provincial chairman, and his allies filled nearly all the other top provincial positions. When Magashule was later asked to comment on the complaints of his opponents in the province, he pleaded innocence. Soon it went to court.
The applicants wanted the latest Magashule-led provincial executive committee to be disbanded. They argued that the processes leading up to the conference had been “manipulated and abused,” that the “principle of fair political play was flagrantly undermined,” and that “the election was not free and fair.” After a provincial court rejected the claim, they took the matter to the Constitutional Court, South Africa’s highest judicial body. The court found that the respondents “in effect disenfranchised members of a branch in good standing,” an action that was also “inconsistent” with South Africa’s Constitution. The court papers revealed that the provincial conference was attended by many more of these supposed “delegates” who had no business being there.
The Free State’s ANC membership figures, as reflected in an organizational report presented in 2012, made for very interesting reading. In 2007, the province had 61,000 official party members. In January 2012, the figure stood at 76,334. By that June, there were 121,074 members, which means the party somehow recruited almost 45,000 new Free State members in just six months.
The Constitutional Court’s judgment did not inspire those implicated in dubious political practices to mend their ways. Magashule found himself in perhaps the most important battle of his long, conflict-ridden political career in the period leading up to the ANC’s December 2017 national conference. The first indications that he would campaign to become the party’s new secretary-general surfaced in around June that year. His drive to occupy this position could be viewed as at once a power play and a fight for survival.
Magashule no doubt knew that he needed to make it into the ANC’s top six if he were to prolong his political life, given soon-to-be President Ramaphosa’s promises of a “new dawn” in South Africa. The new ANC president was quick to pounce on one of Magashule’s old buddies, North West premier Supra Mahumapelo, after violent protests in his province called for him to step down. With pressure from Ramaphosa, Mahumapelo took “early retirement” in May 2018.
Becoming secretary-general therefore offered Magashule a chance to secure one of the party’s most powerful positions and, more importantly, to avoid being swept into political oblivion by the brooms of change Ramaphosa threatened to wield. With such high stakes, it is no wonder the political machinery that propped up Magashule’s rule in the Free State kicked into overdrive in the months before the ANC convention. The intense campaign was accompanied by the same sort of mischief that came under fire in the Constitutional Court’s ruling in 2012. This latest wave of unscrupulous political maneuvering would also eventually be subjected to a legal lashing.
In a particularly hefty court application of nearly 1,000 pages, 26 dissatisfied party members laid bare the astonishing level of skullduggery that still prevailed in the party’s provincial structures five years after the Constitutional Court ruling. This time around, some of Magashule’s closest political associates were fingered as the alleged perpetrators of blatantly undemocratic and unlawful acts that barred certain branch members from participating in the nomination processes.
And once again it appears to have paid off. Magashule’s victory in the race for secretary-general over his challenger Senzo Mchunu surprised not only onlookers and commentators but conference delegates too. Mchunu had received more branch nominations than Magashule and was widely expected to win. The battle for secretary-general yielded the tightest result of all the major races. Exactly 4,696 votes were tallied, and Magashule won by just 24.
Some delegates noticed that the numbers released by the EleXions Agency, a private service provider that oversaw the voting, did not add up. Word quickly spread through the venue that there were 68 votes that had not been factored into the result. Most concerning, it appeared that the “missing” ballots were those of delegates who represented pro-Mchunu branches in Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal. As it turned out, the missing votes had been placed in “quarantine” amid uncertainty over the affected delegates’ credentials. The 68 conference-goers had accreditation tags, but their names were not on the voters’ roll.
The issue threatened to derail the entire conference. Some of the 68 delegates indicated that they would take legal action. Eventually, the conference steering committee decided that 15 of the 68 votes were legitimate and could be added to Mchunu’s tally. But he still came up short. Some Ramaphosa backers were afraid that further pressure to probe the issue could spark calls for a recount of the votes for the entire top six, possibly jeopardizing Ramaphosa’s own narrow victory as ANC president. In the end, Mchunu relented.
Ramaphosa had not even formally taken over the country’s reins from Zuma when, in late January 2018, the directorate for priority crime investigation, a police unit focused on organized crime and corruption that is widely known as “the Hawks” raided Magashule’s offices in the Free State capital of Bloemfontein. They were searching for possible evidence related to the dairy venture linked to the powerful Gupta family in the rural town of Vrede. They also hit the offices of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development that same morning. “We are looking for documents and any electronic information pertaining to our investigation,” Hawks spokesperson Hangwani Mulaudzi told reporters. “We are going to be here the whole day.”
Many South Africans welcomed this dramatic turn of events. The Hawks, other law enforcement bodies, and the country’s prosecution authority were all widely criticized for their apparent lethargy and inaction during Zuma’s time in power, especially regarding politically sensitive cases. The raid on the offices of the ANC’s newly elected secretary-general suggested that the police and the National Prosecuting Authority were finally doing their jobs. The raids in Bloemfontein were followed by one at the Gupta family’s estate in Johannesburg, sparking further optimism about the new regime’s willingness to pursue corrupt politicians and their private sector partners. But there is a disconcerting backstory to the Hawks’ operations in early 2018.
About two weeks before the law enforcement body rolled into the Free State, the director-general in Magashule’s office allegedly warned fellow provincial officials about the pending raids. “We knew the Hawks were coming well in advance,” one current official told me. “Ace’s [director-general] told us to be ready.”
A former senior Hawks officer told me that this influence stretched beyond the Free State’s borders. “Whenever a member of the public or a government official laid a criminal complaint that involved Ace or one of his associates, that news would very quickly reach Ace’s ears,” the officer said. Judging by an event that occurred shortly before the raid, it seems Magashule had indeed been tipped off. Allegedly, a small group of men removed heaps of documents, computers, printers, and other items from the premier’s office a few days before the raid. Two sources familiar with the episode claimed the men had been instructed to get rid of material that could have implicated Magashule and some of his colleagues in dodgy government deals.
The small mountain of potential evidence was allegedly taken to a house located in one of the townships on the outskirts of Bloemfontein. It was enough material to fill a small room. A bar code on a computer captured in one of the photos showed that the item belonged to the “Department of the Premier—Free State.”
One of my sources, the former senior Hawks officer, said Magashule’s influence over key personnel in the law enforcement environment did not end when he vacated his Bloemfontein office for his new position at the top of the ANC. “As [secretary-general], Ace is still making himself heard within the [police service] and the Hawks,” this source alleged. “He is close to some very senior people in the police’s national structures.”
If Magashule’s faction has allies within police or intelligence structures, this needs to be probed and dealt with immediately, lest these vital agencies get sucked into a dangerous political battle. For Magashule, there is more at stake than political power. The ANC secretary-general is alleged to have presided over a decades-long state capture scheme in his home province. This may yet land him in some serious legal trouble.
But that will only happen once the Hawks, the police, and prosecutors are released from the clutches of their captors. In this sense, Ramaphosa’s “new dawn” has so far been just that—a faint glimmer of hope peeking over the horizon. What South Africa needs now is direct sunlight.
This excerpt has been adapted from the book Gangster State: Unravelling Ace Magashule’s Web of Capture.