Ace Magashule. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Ace Magashule. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

THE Constitutional Court decision to hear the merits of a case brought by six members of the African National Congress (ANC) from the Free State is likely to expose the cracks in the party’s electoral process a few weeks before its national electoral conference in Mangaung next month.

The court bid, seeking to nullify the province’s June electoral conference, is set to bring the ANC’s electoral process under scrutiny, as the party responds to serious allegations that its constitution was violated and processes manipulated, resulting in the re-election of Free State provincial chairman Ace Magashule — an ally of President Jacob Zuma.

The applicants in the matter have been linked to the "forces of change", a group wanting to see Mr Zuma replaced by his deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe.

Mr Magashule’s re-election was a boost for Mr Zuma’s bid for a second term. The Free State is a small province in terms of the number of delegates it sends to the national conference, but small groups of delegates could swing a tight contest.

The Constitutional Court on Wednesday ruled that the merits of the case — based on a failed application to the Free State High Court in Bloemfontein by the six party members — be heard next Thursday, a day before provinces are to submit their final nominations for the top six positions in the ANC ahead of the party’s Mangaung conference.

The legal team for the six members argued in founding affidavits prepared for the Bloemfontein hearing that the Free State leadership, elected at a conference in Parys in June, were "unlawfully imposed". Should the outcome of the case swing the way of the applicants, it would be an embarrassment to the national leadership, including Mr Zuma, who endorsed the legitimacy of the conference at the time. The gathering was boycotted by the then provincial secretary, Sibongile Besani, who was standing for re-election, and the treasurer, Mxolisi Dukwana.

The conference was also preceded by months of infighting and factional battles, between Mr Magashule pitted against Mr Dukwana, who was part of the group wanting change, for the top spot.

The allegations contained in the affidavits at the high court were never tested because the case was dismissed on a technicality. The respondents, the current ANC Free State leadership, have accused the applicants of taking a factional fight, which they lost, to court.

The case cuts to the heart of the ANC’s democratic machinery — the branch — with the applicant’s founding affidavits describing how the process was allegedly manipulated to secure Mr Magashule’s re-election.

One branch, Ward 25, from the Motheo region, charges that it held a "legitimate branch meeting" where nominations ahead of the conference were made, but the delegates selected to represent that branch at the conference were not invited, nor were their nominations taken into account. Delegates from this branch were simply not allowed to attend the meeting, despite meeting all the party requirements for a legally constituted branch meeting.

The audit for the Motheo region was finalised on the first day of the conference, June 21, which the applicants claim was "clear evidence of gross irregularity and breach of contract". Audits are usually done long before the conference.

In the Thabo Mofutsanyane region, members say that the irregularities could only have been cleared up through "re-runs" of branch general meetings. H owever, these did not take place, as national leaders, deployed to assist the province in preparing for the conference, failed to pitch up for the meetings. Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu, the convener of the national audit team, agreed to officiate at a branch general meeting in Bodibeng but failed to attend, according to the applicants’ court papers.

It also alleged that Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa, meant to preside over a meeting of the Phuthaditjaba branch on June 17, failed to attend. Three other meetings also did not take place as the national leaders meant to officiate did not turn up.

However, all the branches were represented at the conference, despite no branch general meetings being held, the applicants claimed in the founding court papers.

The application also contains letters from Mr Besani, who was said to be part of the camp opposing Mr Magashule’s election, to ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, repeatedly complaining about the processes ahead of the conference.

In a letter dated June 3, he alleges that the provincial executive committee, of which he was a part of, "had deteriorated to a level of serving lobby groups (more) than the observing of organisational processes". He paints a dismal picture of the state of the provincial ANC structures in the run-up to the conference and alleges that "gangsters and known criminals are used … to intimidate members".

The ANC frowns upon those who challenge it in court without exhausting internal processes first, Mr Mantashe said on Wednesday. The party would defend itself in court.