South Africa

Mr Bombastic: Kebby Maphatsoe’s top-secret guide to political relevance

By Ranjeni Munusamy 10 September 2014

Suddenly, everybody knows who the MK Military Veterans’ chairperson is. Kebby Maphatsoe shot to prominence after he blasted off his mouth on Saturday, claiming that Public Protector Thuli Madonsela was a CIA plant. On Monday he went further to say Madonsela thought “she is God”. And then after denying the CIA statement, he has apologised – for what exactly, nobody is sure. You might think Maphatsoe, the Deputy Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, is now eating humble pie after the furore. Hardly. Maphatsoe thinks he has now ingratiated himself with Number One and is now politically indispensable. It was exactly what he was aiming for. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

In the ANC it is very difficult to get noticed. It is a huge organisation with a defined pecking order. The national executive committee (NEC), together with the top six officials and ex-officio members, is a total of 100 people. So even if you are in the highest decision-making committee, you are competing with 99 other people to have your voice heard. The NEC elected at Mangaung in December 2012 is not exactly the ANC’s best and brightest. The golden generation is passing and there are only a few people who were in the leadership of the ANC during the struggle for liberation who still serve in formal structures.

Many people in the ANC leadership at national and provincial level serve in government. So their day job is functioning within the bureaucracy. The ANC machinery leans heavily on government. Statements on the work of the ANC is channelled via official structures, and made public by senior officials or the spokespeople.

Under these circumstances, it is very difficult to make your mark politically. This is particularly so if you are the chairperson of an association that has nothing to do with anything in the general life and functioning of the ANC.

The Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association (MKMVA) might sound like a grand structure, but it isn’t really. MK, the armed wing of the ANC, was disbanded in 1990 and many of the solid combatants were incorporated into the South African National Defence Force, South African Police Services and the intelligence structures. Others retired or got jobs in the private sector. MKMVA does not represent all of these people. And Kebby Maphatsoe, the chairperson of MKMVA, definitely does not speak for everybody who served in MK.

In fact, there always been something of an inside joke about Maphatsoe among former MK combatants. Public relations strategist Chris Vick wrote recently about the legend of how Maphatsoe lost his one hand in the MK camps. But the past is the past, and Maphatsoe now serves in the ANC and was appointed by President Jacob Zuma as Deputy Minister of Defence and Military Veterans after the May elections.

Although Maphatsoe has led MKMVA for seven years, he is not someone who often gets airtime. The only time he has featured in the news has been when he resorts to bluster and asinine statements. In October 2009, he said of former ANC veteran and minister Kader Asmal: “We advise Kader Asmal to go to the nearest cemetery and die if that is the choice he had made.” This was after Asmal had said he wished not to be alive to see the now Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula become ANC secretary general.

Continuing the idiotic rant on Asmal, Maphatsoe said: “There is nothing that makes him an experienced cabinet member as the only track record he has of cabinet is his failure and unprecedented blind loyalty”.

In July 2012, ANC Youth League loyal to their former president Julius Malema staged an upheaval during an ANC centenary lecture delivered by Zuma in Thoyandou, Limpopo. Police used teargas and water cannons to disperse the crowd singing anti-Zuma songs. Members of MKMVA had also been involved in the scuffle with Malema’s supporters.

Maphatsoe said his members had to intervene to protect the president. “We are not part of the president’s protection unit. However, during ANC gatherings when people show ill-discipline, as happened at Thohoyandou, we cannot wait for the police to act.”

But this weekend, Maphatsoe really reached his peak in terms of defending the president and also having his 15 minutes of fame. Speaking at the unveiling of a tombstone of a former MK combatant in Soweto on Saturday, Maphatsoe aimed for the person seen by Zuma’s acolytes as the source of his misery. In their reasoning of the Nkandla upgrades scandal, it is not the exorbitant spending on unnecessary luxuries and the ethical breaches that are the problem. The problem, according to Zuma’s cohorts, is that Public Protector Thuli Madonsela has the audacity to say that the president should pay back the money.

Maphatsoe, and several people like him in the ANC, think that there must be some alternate explanation for Madonsela demanding accountability from the president because they think it is outrageous for Zuma to have to pay when the state is there to do so.

So Maphatsoe voiced what he and his mates have been saying since Madonsela recommended that Zuma pay back the money. “We can’t allow people to hijack the ANC. We’ll fight and defend the African National Congress. uThuliumele asitshele ukuthi ubani ihandler yakhe (Thuli must tell us who her handler is),” Maphatsoe is quoted as saying.

“They are even using our institution now…These Chapter 9 institutions were created by the ANC but are now being used against us, and if you ask why, it is the Central Intelligence Agency. Ama (the) Americans want their own CEO in South Africa and we must not allow that,” he went on to say.

When these comments were reported prominently in the media, Maphatsoe thought he was on a roll and his moment to be noticed had really come. From the podium at Albert Luthuli House, the ANC headquarters, he dug a deeper hole for himself.

“If advocate Thuli Madonsela feels more powerful and above the Constitution, she should tell the country who her handlers are,” Maphatsoe told a media briefing. “It is clear she wants the head of the president, she’s no longer playing the ball, she’s playing the person.

“She thinks she is God,” Maphatsoe said. “Her actions leave us with no choice but to say her actions are that of enemy agents.”

Instead of getting a pat on the back for putting Madonsela in her place and defending the president, Maphatsoe has been attacked from multiple quarters. And to his eternal disappointment, the ANC and government have distanced itself from the comments. In the course of shooting of his mouth, Maphatsoe did not realise that his comments would have repercussions for the South African government, in which he serves as a deputy minister.

“CIA” is normally used in ANC parlance to refer to “enemy forces”, which as popular conspiracy goes, is forever plotting against the ruling party. It might not always refer literally to the US Central Intelligence Agency, which is considered generally around the world as having an unhealthy interest in other nation’s affairs. There is no evidence that this is the case in South Africa, but the combination of legend, the Snowden effect and Hollywood does inflame the paranoia machine somewhat.

Maphatsoe did not appear to be making an accusation against the US government, but was obviously wanting to deal the harshest possible blow to Madonsela by saying she was part of some sinister agenda to attack the president. But when such comments are uttered by a deputy minister at the podium of the ANC headquarters, it can spark an exquisite diplomatic incident.

The United States Ambassador to South Africa, Patrick Gaspard, who acts of course as the protector of his government’s interests and agencies, shot back at Maphatsoe in a series of tweets, rejecting what he called “baseless and offensive accusations”. The US embassy also said they would be lodging a formal complaint to the South African government through diplomatic channels.

But the government has said Maphatsoe was speaking in his “personal capacity” and within hours of his statement on Monday, the ANC said they were “extremely unfortunate” and they had no information to support his claims. Madonsela has also demanded that Maphatsoe explain and apologise for his comments. Such an attack on her constitutes contempt for the office of the Public Protector and Maphatsoe can be charged.

So now Maphatsoe has embarked on a rather unwieldy exercise of trying to backpedal. His comments also caused an uproar in Parliament, where he was called on to explain them. Maphatsoe claimed his comments in Soweto were not reportedly accurately because the journalist who wrote the story was not there. He claims he did mention directly that Madonsela was a CIA spy. But a video clip is apparently available and Maphatsoe’s intention is clear from the translated quotes.

On Tuesday night, Maphatsoe issued an apology. “After consultation with my organisation, the African National Congress, it would seem as though my statements have been misunderstood and misinterpreted.

“I therefore withdraw those statements and apologise for any offences and hurt that would have been caused,” Maphatsoe said. But revealing that the apology to Madonsela is not genuine, he also said the behaviour and conduct of the Public Protector remained “a source of concern”.

Maphatsoe has been roundly criticised by opposition parties – Democratic Alliance MP David Maynier was kicked out of Parliament for calling him an “idiot” – and also received a stinging attack from metalworkers union Numsa. The Economic Freedom Fighters called on him to resign for bringing the country into disrepute.

It is not known who in the ANC leadership had a word with Maphatsoe, which prompted the apology, and whether he was reprimanded or simply nudged to do the right thing. But Maphatsoe got what he wanted – a moment in the sunshine and the opportunity to prove how fiercely loyal he is to his boss. Unfortunately though, his moronic comments do not mean we have heard the last of Kebby Maphatsoe and his rag tag army. He has tasted the spotlight and he shall be back for more. DM

Photo: Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans’ Association chairman Kebby Maphatsoe is seen at a news conference in Johannesburg on Monday, 8 September 2014 where he was speaking about Public Protector Thuli Madonsela. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA

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