South Africa

Mac Maharaj: Unplugged, confident, revealing

By Stephen Grootes 27 July 2015

Mac Maharaj may be out of formal politics, for the moment. But that doesn’t mean he’s out of politics. Over the weekend it emerged he’d told the Financial Times that he had advised President Jacob Zuma to prepare to pay back some of the money the government had spent on his home at Nkandla. It’s a matter of public record that Zuma did not accept that advice. But there was far more in that interview that appears to have been missed in all the (predictable) screaming and shouting over Nkandla. Maharaj holds forth on fundamental issues such as whether the African National Congress will split after Zuma, whether Cyril Ramaphosa would be a good president, and the relationship between the ANC, politics, and judges. As always with Maharaj, it makes for fascinating reading. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

Mac Maharaj has been many things in his life. Prisoner, soldier, underground leader, cabinet minister, spin doctor. In none of those roles has he been boring. Now that he has left official office, it appears Maharaj may be relaxing some of his formidable discipline. His interview in the Financial Times (FT) with news editor Alec Russell is 20 pages long. Russell has a long relationship with SA, having served as the FT’s correspondent here. Which means he may well have known Maharaj for some time.

Its worth recounting Maharaj’s quote on Nkandla in full:

And you raised Nkandla. I’d say that is the biggest weakness, the Nkandla saga. He ought to take some clearly defined level of responsibility, even if it is for an act of omission.

But from the beginning, I once said to him, President, prepare yourself for repayment. This is before the report came out. And I said, if you have a problem I’m sure that in your present position it won’t be difficult to raise. He said, no, I did not ask for those security enhancements, I’m not paying. I understood his point of view. We know how stubborn each of us can be and we know each of us have got some blind spot in us. But how this thing pans out, it has gone pretty far down the parliamentary process but what is important is to create a culture of taking responsibility for our actions.

Curiously, Maharaj seems to stop for a moment, at least in the full transcript. The next comment is the start of a new paragraph:

On second thoughts, I think my comment on President Zuma and Nkandla are inappropriate. Firstly, my job as his spokesman depended on confidentiality. My job ended only recently on 30 April 2015. Secondly, the matter of Nkandla is still with Parliament and possibly the courts. There is much contestation between the parties on this matter and I do not want my personal views arising from a confidential relationship to become a political football. I am a dedicated member of the ANC.

Now this is a curious series of comments. Firstly, Maharaj does not appear to be taking back his comments about Nkandla, hes certainly not telling Russell not to publish them, or claiming they are off the record. Secondly, this is Mac Maharaj were talking about. The man does not misspeak. He knows exactly what he is saying and to whom he is saying it.

While Maharaj does appear to be saying that he doesnt want this comment to be a political football, from the outside it seems impossible not to see this as an attempt to separate his own legacy from that of Zuma. As the public face of the Zuma administration, Maharaj has had to defend all manner of excesses. But none have bedeviled him as much as Nkandla. Maharaj has his own very prominent place in our history, he must surely want to make sure he is not remembered only for Nkandla. Can you imagine the humiliation of it, the person who helped Nelson Mandela write Long Walk to Freedom being known by most people for his association with Nkandla? While Maharaj knows better than most that life is not fair, he’ll surely want to improve his own legacy if he can.

Maharaj is fascinating on the state of the ANC.I think Cyril (Ramaphosa) will make a good president is probably the other money quote from the interview. Considering that Maharaj was seen as close to Zuma (although that is clearly not as much the case as it was presumed), this is a very interesting point for him to make. No doubt those who support Ramaphosa will claim this is almost a blessing from the Robben Islanders themselves. However, Maharaj also says it is a good thing that Cyril didnt become president earlier. In a way, he seems to be suggesting that perhaps Ramaphosa has matured over time. Certainly, one cant imagine anyone else, in or outside of the ANC, making a similar comment about someone with Ramaphosa’s history and getting away with it.

He is also adamant that the ANC will not split after its leadership conference in 2017. Asked if the party will divide again, as it did after Thabo Mbeki, he says bluntly: There wont be a division. To Russell’s follow-up: Or will there be an assured succession?, Maharaj replies:No, there will be a succession. He then dips into the history of the ANC to explain this. Certainly, hes fairly confident of the partys chances of staying together after Zuma.

Maharaj also has some interesting comments to make about the current debate about the powers of the judiciary and elected politicians. In the wake of the Omar al-Bashir case, they make interesting reading. Using a day this writer would rather forget as an entry point, he refers to reported comments by Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke that committees should be making appointments that are currently in the hands of the president. Maharaj goes through the process of appointing a new commissioner to the Electoral Commission (which includes Parliament, and several other hoops before the president signs the final documents) and then says: So, what do you want? Do you want a committee system, do you want the president to choose? Theres no system, thats right.

Just in case you think hes perhaps leaning towards the judges and the courts on this issue, think again. He says that according to media reports Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng has said:I want near absolute power for the judiciary. I want near absolute power for the National Prosecuting Authority and I want near absolute power for the Public Protector. What do you mean by near absolute power? Such a path would destroy the democratic foundations of our system.

The bigger point that Maharaj appears to be making is that there must always be some tension between the courts and judges and elected politicians. That this is healthy. But that it must be managed properly. No one side should have the upper hand or be able to control the other.

Certainly, considering the huge divide that appeared to be opening up between judges and the ANC-led alliance, Maharaj appears to be trying to be a sober voice in the chaos.

Much, perhaps most of Maharaj’s interview has to do with the history of the ANC, of the people he knew, and the world that he was active in as a young man. It’s very very interesting. And well worth a good sit-down and read through. He’s had an amazing life. In a very strange way, perhaps some of us feel his absence from day to day politics. DM

Photo of Mac Maharaj by Phillip de Wet.

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