South Africa, Politics

Jackson Mthembu: In the land of the dishonest, an honest man is a kingmaker

By Stephen Grootes 19 October 2016

There is an expression about politics that is almost as old as language itself. It is first recorded in Latin as “in regione caecorum rex est luscus”. Nowadays it is usually translated as “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”. In our context, where lawlessness, political power and general malfeasance appear to rule supreme, another twist on this line could be “In the land of the dishonest, an honest man is a kingmaker”. People who simply do their jobs, like the former Public Protector, judges who adhere to their vows to protect the Constitution, and police officers who are not corrupt, are hailed as heroes. This gives a chance to those politicians who are honest, who have a track record of being trustworthy. Just by doing the right thing, they can make a mark for themselves, and use that as a building block for something much bigger. Jackson Mthembu is just such a person. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

It is probably common cause that South Africans currently have a low opinion of our politicians. We are an extremely cynical bunch. This is partly because all of us who grew up before 1994 were lied to by the apartheid regime, and those who grew up later have had to endure the Arms Deal, Waterkloof landing, Nkandla, the lies around the decision to fire Nhlanhla Nene, and the general rise in corruption across our society, to name but a few. At the same time, we seem to live in a time when people who have the support of President Jacob Zuma are able to defy the ANC, and the general public. But the ANC itself is not really able to defy Zuma.

However, Mthembu is someone who appears to be unafraid of starting the pushback, of actually saying what he thinks and feels, without worrying about the political consequences.

Two incidents in just the last week show this. On Tuesday, just hours after Pravin Gordhan was charged with fraud by the National Prosecuting Authority, Mthembu was holding a press conference in his capacity as Chief Whip of the ANC in Parliament.

The ANC had already called on “interested parties to desist against public commentary, which would undermine due process or create further confusion”. But, inevitably, Mthembu was asked for his view on the decision. He did not hold back, saying that speaking for himself, Gordhan was an “honest person, a disciplined cadre and a wonderful finance minister”.

That could have been enough, the point had been made. But Mthembu went further, saying that he would go with Gordhan to the courts, if necessary.

There was no Cyril Ramaphosa’s triangulation about these comments; Mthembu was placing himself firmly, rock-solid firmly, in the Gordhan camp.

Then, later in the week, a strange series of events occurred around the Public Protector’s report on state capture. The High Court in Pretoria had issued a preservation order to the effect that the report cannot be altered in any way. Thuli Madonsela gave the report to the officer of the Speaker of the National Assembly for safe-keeping. But Parliament then claimed that there was no legal basis on which the Speaker could accept the report, and so it was going back to the Public Protector.

So far, this was just another day in the chaos, confusion and cock-up that is our politics at the moment. But suddenly, the ANC put out a statement indicating that because of an intervention by Mthembu, the Speaker would in fact keep the report until Monday, and only then would it be given to the new Public Protector.

There are roughly 17 different things that went wrong here. But the most important is the fact that it seems almost certain that Mthembu seems to have somehow overruled Baleka Mbete. She is the Chair of the ANC. He is the Chief Whip of the party. She outranks him both ways, in the party and in Parliament. One wonders what on Earth could have happened – did he convince her through sheer force of legal argument, did he appeal to some other motive? We will probably never know. But what do know is that he was able to make his will prevail.

Then there is the long-running fight between Mthembu and Communications Minister Faith Muthambi. Mthembu is the chair of the ANC’s Communications Commission. That commission has decided the country should implement encrypted digital terrestrial television. Muthambi has done the complete opposite, and pressed ahead with unencrypted digital terrestrial television. When she claimed, in public, that the ANC had in fact decided the other way, Mthembu went public with his repudiation of her.

In recent weeks, he has raised his head above the parapet again, in fight against the SABC board and Hlaudi Motsoneng. Time and time again Mthembu has criticised the board – eventually it was he who promised action. And while it is taking some time, that action finally appears to be gathering steam.

One of the main advantages that Mthembu has in fights like these is that he is generally seen as honest. This is because during his time as national spokesperson for the ANC he was never seen to lie. This is harder than it seems: being a spokesperson for the party in power, never mind a party led by Jacob Zuma, is a pretty tricky proposition. To do it and to retain your legitimacy requires serious tap-dancing.

And there is evidence to suggest that honesty is in fact Mthembu’s default position. There is the famous incident of how he ended up claiming the bus lane on the main highway in Cape Town as his own. Unfortunately, he was inebriated, intoxicated or just drunk. There was no attempt to try to deny it, no bid to claim his condition was the result of cough mixture or prescription meds. Instead, he took it on the chin, ate the KFC kindly delivered by Tony Yengeni’s Maserati, and paid the fine.

Mthembu has been upfront about other personal issues. He once called in to 702’s Redi Tlhabi to contribute his story about his son’s battle with drugs. It was a story devastating in its horror and its power.

This then suggests that Mthembu may be in that rare position of having legitimacy at a time when other people are lacking it. As the calendar ticks down to that election in 2019, this could be a sought-after consideration. No matter which side you are on in the ANC, when it comes to creating a possible list of top six leaders, this is the kind of legitimacy that could be useful. It would help sell the new leadership to a cynical public in the months before the polls.

This is particularly the case when it comes to the position of secretary-general. One of the reasons that Gwede Mantashe has survived in the position (even though he now seems to have almost washed his hands of the whole thing: he appears to still be in China during what many would see as a huge crisis for the ANC over the Finance Minister) is because he too is honest. As a result, competing factions in the party have a reason to trust him. Mthembu could be in a position where he too is trusted by enough people to push him into a senior post.

It goes almost without saying that there is still much water to flow under the bridge in the next few months and years. Mthembu could find that his head is too exposed, and he has to lower it again. But he may also be able to use his position as Chief Whip as leverage, and to use it to build a solid foundation. And of course, there will be strong rivals for any post that might be available next year.

However, he has shown what just one honest person can achieve, despite the dishonesty around him. Hopefully, at the very least, he will be an example to some others. DM

Photo: Jackson Mthembu before the start of the party’s elective conference in Mangaung, December 2012. Photo: Greg Nicolson/NewsFire



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