Free State capture and the 'cattle thief'

An extract from Gangster State:  Unravelling Ace Magashule’s Web of Capture by Pieter-Louis Myburgh.

Come 1999 Ace Magashule must have felt sure that the time had finally come for him to be appointed Free State premier. After all, he was the ruling party’s chairperson in the Free State and the ANC had been very clear that it desired one person to lead both both the provincial party and the government.
But Thabo Mbeki, who took over from Mandela as ANC president in 1997, and as the man in charge of the country after the 1999 elections, clearly shared Mandela’s reservations about Ace: he shocked the latter’s support base by appointing Botshabelo local and NCOP member Winkie Direko as Free State premier.

Like Terror Lekota and Matsepe-Casaburri before her, Direko was labelled by the Magashule camp as an outsider imposed on the Free State.

But Direko was tough, and it quickly became clear that she would not be intimidated.

By mid-2000 the ongoing factional conflict necessitated yet another drastic intervention by the ANC’s national leadership. The Magashule-led Provincial Executive Committee (PEC) of the ANC was disbanded and an interim committee was appointed to lead the party in the province. The body was led by Godfrey Mosala, a former official in the education department, and Noby Ngobane, who was later shot dead in what is deemed to have been the most high-profile assassination as a result of the province’s political discord.

The opportunity for Magashule to once again grab the ANC’s top position in the province presented itself in 2002 when another elective provincial conference was to be held. Mbeki favoured Direko for chair, but Magashule comfortably defeated her by 100 votes, marking the start of a 15-year run of nearly uninterrupted rule as chairperson of the ANC in the Free State.


Ace Magashule

The 2002 victory was crucial for Magashule’s subsequent dominance of party politics in the Free State, as well as his iron grip on the provincial government’s finances. This is when Ace started to consolidate his power and when he started to mastermind his capture of every level of government in the province.

He and his followers first focused on gaining control of the municipalities. As ANC chairperson and chair of the party’s deployment committee, he used his power and influence to ensure that “his people” were appointed to key municipal positions all over the province, explained my source.

The most important positions were those of mayor and municipal manager. The Magashule-led PEC determined who the mayor of each municipality would be. While the appointment of municipal managers was a prerogative of each municipality’s council, ANC members who took their instructions from the party’s provincial executive committee dominated those councils. The management tier that fell under the post of municipal manager was also stacked with Magashule allies. This included directors and chief financial officers (CFOs).

Beatrice Marshoff

A source who later served as an MEC in Magashule’s cabinet [told me]: “There is a pattern of municipal managers appointed from 2002 onwards who were from Fezile Dabi [the district around Magashule’s hometown of Parys], or who were otherwise close to him.”

After the national election in April 2004, President Mbeki appointed Beatrice Marshoff as the Free State’s new premier. Marshoff had been the MEC for social development in Direko’s cabinet.

Marshoff said that Magashule and his cronies approached her right after she became premier. “We had a meeting at Kopano Nokeng [a lodge and conference centre outside Bloemfontein] where they cornered me with a list of demands for people they wanted me to appoint as MECs,’ she told me. I said, “No, I’ll decide who is going to get appointed.” At that stage, she had no intention to include Magashule or any members of his clique in her government. “I had been warned by Terror [Lekota] how much time and energy it took to keep his [Magashule’s] trouble under control,” Marshoff told me.

Essop Pahad, who led the NEC’s provincial committee for the Free State, asked Marshoff if she would consider making room for Magashule and some of his people to “protect the peace” in the Free State. The national leadership put further pressure on her during a meeting at Luthuli House. According to Marshoff, a senior party leader told her that, for the sake of stability in the province, she should appoint Magashule in a department where there were not many resources for him to plunder.

Magashule apparently wanted to be MEC for public works or economic affairs, but those departments were seen as too well-funded and important. Marshoff finally budged and agreed to appoint Magashule as the MEC for agriculture, a move she now regrets. “There is not a lot of money in that department, but it has access to or control over lots of resources, so it is still a very important portfolio,” she said. “It was a big mistake to appoint him there.”

Less than a year into his tenure, in April 2005, Marshoff dropped Magashule when she reshuffled her executive council. Another victim of the reshuffle was economic affairs MEC Benny Malakoane. Both men were shifted to the provincial legislature.

Marshoff was rather cryptic about her reasons for axing the duo, saying at the time that the reshuffle was meant to “improve service delivery in the province”.

Glen College of Agriculture

In an interview with Marshoff in 2018, she revealed to me the real reasons behind her decision. One Friday after work, she was at home in Bloemfontein when her phone rang. It was one of her staffers, calling to inform her about a pending political fiasco involving Magashule, his ANC region in the north and the Glen College of Agriculture, a state-funded agricultural college situated about twenty-five kilometres outside Bloemfontein. The college fell under the leadership of Magashule’s Department of Agriculture.

“This person told me that Ace had instructed staff members at the college to slaughter the college’s calves and to put the meat into separate parcels,” recalled Marshoff. At the time, the ANC’s Fezile Dabi region was about to hold a regional conference in Sasolburg. “The meat parcels were meant to be distributed among ANC members who were going to attend the conference so that they would vote for Magashule’s slate,” she explained.

The heist was still under way by the time the premier got word of it, so she phoned the police to try to stop it. “The police managed to intercept three Department of Agriculture bakkies that were full of meat parcels and that were on their way to Sasolburg.”

Marshoff later learnt that there were more vehicles carrying meat than just the three apprehended, and that some of the conference attendees did get their meat parcels courtesy of Magashule. “The department staff who were driving the bakkies confirmed that Ace had ordered them to take the meat up north,” Marshoff said. “That is when I decided to fire Ace. This is what Ace does, he buys people’s support and he uses government resources to do that.”

Dumbfounded by these revelations, I endeavoured to find out more about Magashule’s alleged theft of state-owned cattle. A long-serving staff member at Glen College confirmed the incident. “If I remember correctly, there were about thirty-two cattle that were slaughtered, and the meat was taken to a political event somewhere up north,” he told me.

Magashule’s habit of abusing the college’s resources apparently continued after he became premier. “It became quite normal for them to fetch or slaughter cattle here when there were political funerals or other political events,” this source told me in August 2018. “It is a scandal because it is the state’s property, not theirs to just take. It has since become less common [after Magashule’s departure from the province]. They have only come to fetch two [cattle] so far this year.”

Ace Magashule

Marshoff, meanwhile, took the cattle incident and some of Magashule’s other shortcomings as MEC for agriculture to the national leadership and asked them if she could fire him. “Apart from the cattle thing, his department was generally in a mess,” she explained. “There was no coordination, he sometimes failed to attend ExCo meetings and he didn’t submit the necessary reports for his department.”

She told Mbeki that she could not work with Magashule, and the president agreed that she needed to remove him. “It caused a lot of problems for me in the ANC, seeing as I had dared to remove the all-powerful Ace,” recalled Marshoff.

After being booted out of the Department of Agriculture, Magashule became the ANC’s chief whip in the provincial legislature. He now no longer had direct access to government coffers or contracts, but it seems he still managed to involve himself in dodgy deals.

In August 2007, the national leadership asked Marshoff once again to make room for Magashule in her executive council. “They wanted me to place him in another department that did not have access to a lot of money,” she said.

This time, Magashule was appointed the Free State’s new MEC for sport, arts, culture and recreation. His presence in this new government environment immediately caused friction and problems. Rachel Sempe, the department’s then head, apparently had her hands full trying to stop Magashule from doing things that ran against the Public Finance Management Act and other rules and regulations. Magashule allegedly tried to force the department to employ people he had promised jobs.

“People went to the department and said Ace told them to go and work there, but there were no jobs advertised and the jobs weren’t budgeted for,” said Marshoff. She reiterated a claim made by almost every source I spoke to: Magashule deftly used the promise of employment in provincial and municipal structures to his advantage. As he did with the meat parcels from Glen College, he handed out jobs to buy patronage.

After less than a year, Magashule was once again fired by Marshoff. But his political power kept growing. The influence he wielded as ANC Free State leader and chairperson of the party’s deployment committee had turned him into the province’s most formidable political force.

“He determined who became mayor, municipal manager or CFO at all the municipalities,” explained Marshoff. “He abused this scenario and influenced people at the municipalities to give tenders to people close to him or to people he needed to support him.

“Ace had the ability to instill a deathly fear in people,” said Marshoff. “He was in control of people’s careers, their futures, so they did as he asked them to do.”

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