There was a time when Baleka Mbete quite literally set the public agenda. She could chuck you out of the National Assembly. She decided whether your motion got much airtime. She would sit and tut-tut her way through a parliamentary sitting. In essence she ruled the roost. Then quite suddenly, in a series of events that are still not really explained, she was gone. Back to Luthuli House.
She will utterly deny any claim that she’s lost political power in any way. But she has departed the public political stage … and is now hardly heard.
Mbete is a tough nut. She doesn’t take nonsense and has no patience with someone she sees as opposed to her own agenda. Many see her as a very unsympathetic, selfish figure. She was elevated to the post of Speaker of the National Assembly (which, under certain constitutional conditions can be acting president in a crunch) after the 2004 elections. Then President Thabo Mbeki was in a foul mood at the time, and he became frustrated after Frene Ginwala ummed and ahed a little about whether she wanted another go at the job. From nowhere, it seemed, Mbeki just appointed Mbete.
Mbete said thanks in the best political way possible. She protected Mbeki and the ANC using the powers of her office. Debates seemed to be one ANC MP after another saying roughly the same thing about the same issues. Tony Leon’s Democratic Alliance became more and more frustrated, and couldn’t really do much about it (its caucus was much smaller than it is now). Mbete’s supporters will say that that’s all nonsense, and that she had no part in stifling debate within the chamber. But it must also be remembered, that one of the things President Jacob Zuma promised when he took over at Polokwane was a return to the days of Parliament actually exercising its oversight role. Clearly many people within the ANC felt this had been lost and the executive was getting away with murder. Mbete must surely carry the can for some of that.
Two incidents serve to demonstrate the mood of the green-benched chamber during this time. One was the announcement by Mbete of Parliament’s theme for the year 2007. It was “Asijule Ngengxoxo Lusha Iwase Mzansi”. For the linguistically challenged that’s “Let’s deepen the debate, South Africa”. It was met with open guffaws. The sight of her, the ANC’s hatchet-woman on the Speaker’s chair suggesting that debate wasn’t open enough when she had done so much to stifle it herself, was just too much.
But in another way, another side of Mbete was also apparent. She agreed to an interview on the subject. This put me in a difficult situation. If you’re English speaking, try saying “Ngengxoxo”. It’s a tongue breaker, it moves around a little towards the back of your palate. And she’s so not the person to get that wrong with. Having spent the better part of an afternoon practicing, we went to air. And she was absolutely charming, funny, intelligent, completely coherent. I was glad when the interview was over, but I was completely flummoxed by how much I’d enjoyed it.
Someone who didn’t enjoy her at all was the DA’s Mike Waters. It was he who perhaps more than most pushed her buttons, and ended up being thrown out of the National Assembly for his trouble. At issue was that person who had pushed some buttons herself, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. Waters asked a parliamentary question about reports that she’d been out on the piss with her new liver. It was ruled out of order, he protested, and, trembling with anger and frustration, he was kicked out. It was a black day for our democracy. It was obvious to everyone that the question, going to the heart and liver of possible corruption, misuse of resources and plain old abuse of power, was perfectly legitimate. Perhaps it could have been put more sensitively, but it was all quite correct and proper.
Mbete just acted on instinct, and didn’t think everything through. In the end we had the spectacle of her chucking him out. It really showed that for her, the office of Speaker wasn’t a purely neutral one.
There were also two scandals that involved her, one primarily, one peripherally. In 1997, just a year after being appointed deputy speaker, it was found her driver’s license wasn’t legal. This was uncovered during a routine Mpumalanga scandal involving other fake licenses. Her response was typical Mbete; she “didn’t have time” to stand in queues. One presumes the queues in Mpumalanga could have been pretty long, but it demonstrated her vociferous style when confronted with wrong-doing. It also showed that she doesn’t seem to do shame very well. That led to another mini-scandal, when the Sowetan and Sunday Times claimed she’d also lied on an ID application. It appears she was on much stronger ground there and survived, despite headlines screaming that “her career was on the line”.
The other scandal, which perhaps showed how far she was willing to go for the ruling party was Travelgate. It emerged that MPs, mostly from the ANC, but from other parties as well, were skimming money from travel agents. It was the classic making-money-from-the-system scam. Of course, the money that was stolen was ours. She was one of them. Here, she engaged brain, paying it all back. But what she didn’t want to do was take harsh action against the other MPs.
It can be difficult to know what the right things are in cases like these. On the one hand, MPs had clearly benefited at our expense. On the other, it was a bit more complicated, with the travel agents not playing the game entirely legally themselves either. But what was clear was that if Mbete had literally said this was something she couldn’t countenance, wouldn’t accept, and felt was completely illegal, the outcome could have been different. Of course, she had cocked it up by being involved. To put all of this another way, it’s pretty easy to think that if Ginwala had still been Speaker, this could have turned out very differently.
But behaving in the way she did was unlikely to stop her from getting a good spot on the Zuma ticket at Polokwane. There was a little bit of horse trading involved, but in the end Tokyo Sexwale stopped his campaign to become chairman of the party. Everyone saw through him when he claimed he was standing down “in the name of gender transformation”. It was pretty funny actually. Anyway, she took the job, and the power to set the agenda at ANC conferences. Remember how Mosuia Lekota was the person who had to call Polokwane to order? He also got to ban the “100% Zuma” shirts, order people around and generally run the show. It’s a top job. And it was pretty similar to her day job.
Her position was rising pretty quickly then, and she didn’t seem to suffer at all from the fact that she’d been one of Mbeki’s favourites. During the Mbeki recall saga her star was at such a height that she was even mentioned as a possible acting president. I was on the same SAA flight to Cape Town as she was the night before Parliament formally elected Kgalema Motlanthe to occupy Thuynhuis. The captain felt compelled to mention that his plane had the Speaker on board. When we landed, she was met by a rather large Mercedes-Benz that drove right up to the landing stairs. I had to put aside my copy of “Animal Farm” to watch her make her way down to it.
It was a long journey for Baleka Mmakota Mbete from her birthplace in Durban that started in 1949. In those days one of the best ways for someone in her position to rise up the social ladder was to become a teacher. She qualified from the teachers’ training college in Lovedale in the late 1960s, and got involved in the ANC at around the same time. After teaching for a couple of years in her hometown, she moved to Swaziland, perhaps under the orders of the ANC. Many other senior ANC leaders were there at the time – both Zuma and Mbeki knew that part of the world very well. From there she spent the late 70s in Tanzania, deeply involved in the ANC and became one of the more prominent exiles. She also had three sons and two daughters. By the time she returned following the ANC’s un-banning she was in a good position to be the secretary general of the ANC Women’s League and then, in a way that seems quite bizarre now, was one of the main spokespeople for the ANC during the 1994 elections. From there she became an MP and then deputy speaker.
But her trip up the slippery pole really seemed to have climaxed when she was appointed deputy president, after the Mbeki recall. After this year’s elections it seemed she might stay in the job under Zuma, especially as the smear campaign was raging against Motlanthe (it included claims about his private life and slightly younger women). But then one of the bigger political mysteries of the last year occurred.
Zuma had been elected president and Mbete was sitting in the front row with all the other MPs. They were being sworn in five or 10 at a time. When it was her turn, she didn’t stand up. Her name was called, but she simply stayed where she was and gave some kind of brief wave. It was claimed later that day by the ANC’s spin staff, that she couldn’t take the oath because she was still deputy president. But, of course, that was nonsense and her gesture was simply not defensible; five years earlier, one Jacob Zuma had taken the MP’s oath while still deputy president in 2004. Mbete’s career had clearly taken a bad turn on the road to power.
Yet, what really happened is still a mystery: that Friday afternoon, just 12 hours before Zuma’s inauguration started, the ANC put out a statement saying she would “remain at Luthuli House”. No explanation was given apart from a brief claim that she wanted to concentrate on ANC duties. That’s still the line from ANC insiders. She wanted to look at rebuilding the organisation, and perhaps, they hint, her age played a part. That’s possible, although with a stated age of 60, that seems unlikely. Zuma is six years older for a start. Before we haul out the usual chunk of salt, the party did say, quite consistently since Polokwane, that Mbeki had erred by taking all the party’s talent into government. They’ve always said they wanted to keep some of its brains in the party, to focus on rebuilding it. Hmm, okay, let’s now look at the salt.
Mbete has always been fairly ambitious. Maybe she was simply unable to accept that she can’t be Number Two in the country, a job clearly reserved for Motlanthe. She’s always pushed herself and others. She appeared to enjoy her time as Speaker, and the power it gave her. Did she suddenly lose the oomph? Unlikely. Was she being punished for being too close to Mbeki? Also unlikely. So what is going on now?
She does report for work at Sauer Street every morning, and there’s no doubt plenty of work to keep her busy. The ANC could do with some rebuilding at branch and provincial level. But on a public level, she’s virtually disappeared. She’s rarely seen during photo opportunities at NEC meetings. Perhaps she can’t face us. Perhaps she just generally doesn’t like the media (that strikes us as particularly likely), or has lost her appetite for the spotlight. That strikes us as against most of what we already know about her. But to her spending her day in Luthuli House’s corridors of power rather than ruling those of Parliament must be frustrating. And what is pretty clear is that this is probably how it’s going to end for her. This is probably her last job, real or not. It is difficult to see how she’ll come back to national office now. And even if she did, many people have already jumped ahead in the queue.
But, as always with the ANC, it’s not that simple. In fact, she gets to chair meetings of both the National Executive Committee and the National Working Committee. And we all know who really runs the country.
By Stephen Grootes
(Grootes is an Eyewitness News reporter)
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