South Africa, Politics

Baleka Mbete: Madam Speaker, Madam President?

By Ranjeni Munusamy 20 April 2016

No, this is not satire. The Speaker of Parliament and ANC chairwoman Baleka Mbete said last week that she had been approached by “many people” to run for the position of ANC president. And she appears to be seriously considering doing so. Earlier this month a traditional ceremony was held in her village in the Eastern Cape to secure the blessing of her elders for her campaign. So how did Mbete suddenly become a contender in the ANC succession battle? It would appear that Madam Speaker is now the favoured choice of the “premier league” faction to succeed President Jacob Zuma. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

And you thought things could not get worse.

In years to come, South Africans might look back with nostalgia and long for the days when Jacob Zuma was president. The only thing worse than having a president who acts in violation of the Constitution during his term of office is a person whose candidacy is based on her violation of the Constitution and her inclination to cause chaos.

But let’s first get the good news out of the way. It is now out of the question that Zuma’s term as ANC president would be extended. Last year, the ANC in North West adopted a resolution at a provincial general council to align the ANC and government terms. According to North West premier and ANC provincial chairman Supra Mahumapelo the year-and-a-half break from when the new ANC leadership is elected in December 2017 to the next general election in mid 2019 would create two centres of power. The ANC in North West therefore proposed that the ANC’s national elective conference be moved closer to the national elections and that Zuma be requested to stay on as ANC leader until then.

The resolution did not exactly win rousing support in other ANC structures, and did not even come up at the national general council in October, so the matter was left hanging. But the “premier league” faction, led by Mahumapelo and his counterparts in the Free State and Mpumalanga, Ace Magashule and David Mabuza respectively, still have their eye on the big prize: who will succeed Zuma at the ANC’s 54th national conference. Together with the ANC Women’s League (ANCWL), ANC Youth League (ANCYL) and the Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association, they have provided anchor support for Zuma as he traversed the Gupta controversy and fallout of the Constitutional Court judgment on Nkandla.

With so many calls for Zuma to step down from civil society and from within the ANC fold – veterans, former Umkhonto we Sizwe commanders and some branches – the premier league knows now that there is no way they can argue for an extension of Zuma’s term. Such a campaign would go down like a lead balloon in ANC structures as there is broad awareness that Zuma is a liability even if there is a reluctance to admit it openly.

The premier league group, which is also connected to the Gupta family, appeared to be supporting Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to succeed Zuma as the next ANC leader and next state president. The African Union Commission chairwoman seemed to be a sure bet to run against Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa when she declined to serve a second term in Addis Ababa and made it clear she would be coming home when her term expires in July.

So how did Baleka Mbete suddenly become a contender for ANC president?

It turns out that the premier league have reconsidered their backing for Dlamini-Zuma because she has been unwilling to give any undertakings that she will pander to their agenda. There are apparently also concerns, including from the president, that Dlamini-Zuma still maintains a close relationship with former president Thabo Mbeki. It is still a sticky point that at the ANC’s Polokwane conference in 2007, Dlamini-Zuma featured on both the Zuma and Mbeki slates but she declined the Zuma camp’s nomination and stood on Mbeki’s ticket.

But Dlamini-Zuma, although ambitious, also appears to have reservations about having her own reputation and legacy tainted by being the premier league’s candidate. If her candidature is backed by this grouping, it will not only be the continuation of the Zuma name in the next presidency but also his legacy and scandals.

The ANCWL had already declared that it would be backing a woman to be the next ANC president. So they had to find another woman candidate when they backed out of supporting Dlamini-Zuma.

There was only one person who met all the criteria the premier league needed to confidently back her. Mbete has already displayed her fierce loyalty to Zuma and her ability to throw herself and the Parliament of South Africa under the bus to protect him. She embraces controversy and scandal as her loving companions and, like Zuma, is immune from feeling any sense of shame for bringing dishonour and dysfunctionality to the institution over which she presides.

On paper, Mbete has all the right credentials and experience to stand as ANC leader. She went into exile in 1976 and served the ANC in several southern African states. She was elected as ANCWL secretary-general when she returned from exile and then became an ANC Member of Parliament (MP) in 1994. She was appointed as the chairwoman of the ANC parliamentary caucus in 1995 and a year later Mbete became Deputy Speaker in the National Assembly – a position she held from 1996 to 2004. Her first stint as National Assembly Speaker began after the 2004 elections. In 2007 she was elected as ANC national chairwoman.

When Mbeki was recalled in September 2008, Mbete was a heartbeat away from the top job. She was briefly considered for the position of president but the ANC opted for Kgalema Motlanthe. Mbete was apparently resentful that she was chosen as deputy president instead. Her only experience in government was the eight months she served as Motlanthe’s deputy. She was apparently hopeful that Zuma would keep her as deputy president in 2009 and when he did not, she refused to be sent back to Parliament.   

Between in 2009 and 2014, Mbete remained as ANC national chairwoman but was able to enjoy the benefits of being a former deputy president of the country. She also received R25-million in Gold Fields shares and dividends, which was later found to be a bribe. After the 2014 elections, Mbete returned to Parliament as Speaker of the National Assembly.  

Mbete seems to be restless in her position, particularly because nobody thinks she is doing a good job. Even Zuma has been critical of the way Parliament has run, although his reasons are different from those of most other people. Zuma has said several times that opposition parties, especially the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), are given too much leeway to cause upheaval. Mbete has faced a barrage of criticism from other quarters for being partial in the way she presides over the House and that her rulings are biased towards the ANC.

In September 2014, opposition parties tried and failed to pass a vote of no confidence in Mbete for turning Parliament into a farce. The situation has deteriorated somewhat from then on with Mbete failing to control parliamentary sittings and presiding over two chaotic State of the Nation addresses. Her answer to controlling opposition parties is to have an army of muscle men on standby, which she calls in to physically remove (and sometimes assault) MPs. The 2015 State of the Nation Address was a further fiasco because the Department of State Security was allowed to jam the cellphone signal in the House, which Mbete denied knowledge of.

Mbete’s images are a meme sensation on social media, either giving marching orders to opposition MPs or her infamous phrases such as: “I actually don’t want to recognise any of you.” She has also had epic bouts with the EFF leader Julius Malema and his Chief Whip Floyd Shivambu.

The source of Mbete’s greatest ignominy is the way the National Assembly handled Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s report on the upgrades at Zuma’s Nkandla home. The Constitutional Court ruled in March that the National Assembly “effectively flouted its (constitutional) obligations” and its conduct was “unlawful”.

In a media briefing to respond to the judgment, Mbete said she found no need to apologise for her conduct. She said the judgment provided clarity and guidance, thereby treating the Constitutional Court like an advisory committee rather than seeing the judgment as a serious rebuke from the highest court in the land.

Mbete certainly does not view the judgment as a blight on her political career. Just over a week from when the judgment was delivered, Mbete was at a traditional ceremony in her honour at Mqanduli, south of Mthatha. According to The Herald, she wanted to get the blessings of her amaHlubi tribe before launching her presidential campaign.

Mbete was also quoted as saying that several ANC leaders had approached her to stand as Zuma’s successor. “Let us wait until that time has come to answer your question. There are many people [who have approached me]. But I will respond when the time for that comes,” Mbete reportedly said.

While Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma are still coy about their intentions, Mbete now has the blessings of her ancestors, her tribe elders and possibly the Gupta family, via the premier league, to contend for the top job. Mbete has earned her stripes to be endorsed by the Zuma camp by being a willing participant in the violation of the Constitution to protect the president. She also wears her infamy like a badge of honour.

With Parliament turned into a veritable circus on her watch, one can only imagine what stands in store for the ANC and the country should she become Number One.

But that she is in the running does not mean she will win. There is still a while to go before the next ANC leader is elected and the race is still an open game. DM

Photo: Speaker Baleka Mbete (Greg Nicolson)

Gallery
0