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21 April 2014 01:53 (South Africa)
South Africa

Failure to launch: Mbalula's doomed campaign for ANC secretary general

  • Ranjeni Munusamy
  • South Africa
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Gwede Mantashe is like the weird uncle every family has. He is cantankerous, utters the most bizarre comments, lectures everyone and always wins arguments – mostly by bullying. The original target of proponents of leadership change, he is likely to retain his position as ANC secretary general, in part because of his opponents’ serious tactical blunders. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

Many people would not remember that the Mangaung leadership battle actually began with the campaign to replace Gwede Mantashe as ANC secretary general with Fikile Mbalula, long before there was any talk of a change in the presidency. Mbalula’s term as ANC Youth League president came to end a few months after the ANC’s National Conference in Polokwane in 2007, and he handed over the reigns to Julius Malema. He could not stand for another term because he was over 35, the maximum age to be in the Youth League. 

Mbalula was seen to have been an excellent leader of the ANCYL, reviving it from its slumber under the presidency of Malusi Gigaba and giving it a distinct character in the alliance. Mbalula and the secretary general at the time, Sihle Zikalala, raised the profile and membership of the ANCYL during their tenure, and were at the forefront of President Jacob Zuma’s support campaign during his criminal trials. 

Mbalula was elected in 15th position in the 80-member ANC national executive committee (NEC) at the Polokwane conference and became the party’s head of campaigns. He is credited with much of the success for the ANC’s 2009 election campaign, acting as chief cheerleader and infusing it with a youthful vibe. He has been dubbed “Mr Razzmatazz” due to his frequent use of the word and love of making a big splash in his campaigns. 

Mbalula’s friends and supporters, among them Malema, felt that his organisational skills should be put to better use in the ANC rather than just being an ordinary member of the NEC. It was then that talk began that he should work towards becoming the next ANC secretary general and the campaign for “generational mix” in the leadership took flight. 

Mbalula was appointed Deputy Minister of Police after the 2009 elections, a position in which he was extremely frustrated due to his acrimonious position with the minister, Nathi Mthethwa. After a Cabinet reshuffle in late 2010, Mbalula became a full minister, heading the sport and recreation portfolio. 

His eye, however, has always been on the big prize: the chief administrator of the ANC. Malema assumed the position of his campaign head and the Youth League has consistently drummed up support for him.  

Mantashe, who catapulted into the position of secretary general at Polokwane despite never having served in any ANC leadership role (he made a failed attempt to get on the NEC at the previous conference, in 2002), was seen as an easy target. Still, 2007 was Mantashe’s year. In July he became national chairman of the SACP and in December, he beat Mosiuoa Lekota in the race for secretary general by 2,378 votes to 1,432. He was the Zuma camp’s natural choice for the SG post, following the trend of former National Union of Mineworkers general secretaries serving in the position.  

Malema began rattling Mantashe’s cage in late 2009, particularly after he was booed at the SACP’s special congress in December of that year. The ANC Youth League lashed out at Mantashe after he refused to allow Malema to address the congress after the booing incident. 

“The main reason why the SACP leadership supports the booing of the ANCYL president is because they believe the ANCYL does not support the bid of Blade Nzimande to become deputy president of the ANC in 2012, and that the youth league will not support Gwede Mantashe for second term as ANC secretary general,” the ANCYL said at the time.

“The ANCYL will not agree to the dumping of undemocratic leaders into the ANC, and we will decide on the leadership of the ANC when the time is right,” it added.

The SACP and Cosatu came out in defence of Mantashe, saying he was under attack because he was a communist. Mantashe’s relationship with Cosatu soured later that year, after he attacked the federation for constantly harping on the issue of corruption and embarrassing the ANC as well as for its association with civil society organisations. By alienating his own constituency, Mantashe at that stage was vulnerable and his detractors could easily have exploited this. 

Other than flying the “generational mix” flag, however, no real strategy was developed by Mbalula and his supporters to take on Mantashe. The focus of the ANCYL moved to the campaign for nationalisation and later defending Malema in his disciplinary woes. Mbalula’s profile in the ANC also dipped significantly. Still, the Mbalula for secretary general campaign was always bubbling under, though it never really got off the ground.

It could be that his association with Malema, particularly after the youth leader’s expulsion, became a liability and he deliberately dived for cover. Perhaps his inner circle thought his charisma and organisational skills were sufficient to secure the position in Mangaung and therefore did not go out to do hard campaigning. 

The consequences of this strategic error are now evident. So far only the ANCYL and Limpopo Province have nominated Mbalula to be secretary general. It came as somewhat as a surprise at the weekend that Gauteng, which is at the forefront of the “forces for change” campaign, did not join in nominating him for the post. Instead, it put forward both Joel Netshitenzhe, an NEC member, and Mantashe for the post. 

Netshitenzhe, although widely respected for his intellectual prowess, does not have widespread support, mostly due to his baggage as former President Thabo Mbeki’s right hand man. So far, most ANC structures announcing the leadership preferences are coming out behind Mantashe retaining the position of secretary general. 

Gauteng would have been an obvious place to entrench Mbalula’s campaign, due to its strategic position as lead advocate for leadership change and its ability to play dealmaker. However it is now obvious that there was no serious lobbying by Mbalula’s camp in the province. 

An over-reliance on generational mix drive, which has not had much resonance on the ground, and disorientation of Mbalula’s support base after Malema’s exiling from the ANC, is probably most to blame for their campaign fizzing out. After Malema’s banishment – and the resulting uncertainty in the ANCYL – nobody stepped up to fly Mbalula’s flag. Other than adding a youthful mix in the leadership, they also did not bother to communicate what benefit Mbalula would bring to the ANC. 

Despite Mantashe’s popularity, many ANC leaders and members are highly critical of his bossy manner and bullying style of leadership. They also point out that he has been unable to contain factionalism and camp wars in the ANC, mostly because, instead of the secretary general maintaining a neutral position, Mantashe has himself been leading a faction. 

One of the reasons Mantashe is being retained on most slates on both sides of the Zuma-Motlanthe divide is because he is the only candidate in the top six pool of names who has widespread support in the Eastern Cape. In order to balance of regional and ethnic divides, it is seen as important to at least one candidate from the ANC’s second-biggest province. 

Had serious thought been put into it, the “forces for change” would have realised that Mbalula did not have universal support and that he should have been dropped long ago in favour of a candidate who could seriously challenge Mantashe. 

With most delegations expected to vote for the top six positions in blocs, in much the same way they did in Polokwane, the change lobby would have been in a much stronger position had they agreed on a common slate, particularly on the key position of secretary general. 

Of all the positions on the top six, Mantashe is the person most certain to win the vote and return to his post. It is indicative of how much the ANC has changed in 10 years that the man who could not get any position in the party in 2002 is now able to hold on to the most powerful decision-making job. 

How Uncle Gwede beat Mr Razzmatazz will be one of the most enduring political lessons of Mangaung 2012. DM

Photo: Fikile Mbalula (Phillip de Wet)

  • Ranjeni Munusamy
  • South Africa


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