After a brief honeymoon period following the ANC’s 2007 Polokwane conference, the first cracks appeared in the coalition that got President Jacob Zuma elected. The then leaders of the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) – Julius Malema was still president – started a campaign for a “generational mix” in the ANC’s top leadership. They began lobbying for Fikile Mbalula to become secretary general.
At Daily Maverick’s The Gathering 2015, Malema claimed that he had been instructed by Zuma directly to campaign against Mantashe. The claim appeared implausible as it seemed bizarre that the president would initiate a campaign against the secretary general soon after they were elected onto the ANC top six.
Now, in their final stretch together before the ANC’s 54th national conference in December, Zuma and Mantashe are clearly on opposing sides, with the president making an extraordinary move to undermine the authority of the secretary general. Zuma’s support for Lungisa after Mantashe warned him not to stand for election as the Nelson Mandela Bay regional chairperson has shattered any semblance of unity in the top six and brought to the fore the untenable relationship between the president and secretary general.
Lungisa had until Thursday to resign from the position on the grounds that he was already serving in a higher structure of the party, the Eastern Cape provincial executive committee. Lungisa held on, believing this weekend’s national executive committee (NEC) meeting would throw him a lifeline. It could not as the rule barring ANC members from contesting positions in lower structures if they already serve in superior structures had prevented two current NEC members, Bheki Cele and Nomvula Mokonyane, from being elected into other positions.
Lungisa’s election gave the Zuma camp the foothold they want in the Eastern Cape to lobby for Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to be elected president in December. But the ANC’s rulebook cannot be wished away. The Zuma camp consists of the ANC leaders in the North West, Free State, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal provinces, as well as the leadership of the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) and ANC Women’s League (ANCWL).
Mantashe now has the opportunity to teach Lungisa, and by extension Zuma, a lesson by instituting disciplinary charges against him for being defiant despite being warned not to contest the position. But even if Mantashe succeeds at bringing charges against Lungisa, he cannot undo the weakening of his authority and undermining of his office that has been underway for some time. Mantashe used to be the ANC’s strongman, the person who could define the line that everyone followed and who could bully everyone into submission.
On April 30, 2013, Mantashe issued a three-paragraph statement on the landing of the Gupta jet carrying the family’s wedding guests at Waterkloof Air Force Base. The statement got government jumping around to do damage control. He made it clear that the ANC would not accept the Republic and its borders being undermined. But while officials were made to take the blame, the Guptas escaped without sanction.
A year later, following the release of the Public Protector’s report on Nkandla, Mantashe was on shaky ground. He called for action to be taken against the National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega for misleading the public that the swimming pool was a “firepool”. His call was ignored. Phiyega was eventually suspended in October 2015 as a result of the recommendations of the Farlam Commission of Inquiry into the Marikana massacre.
After the release of the Public Protector’s Nkandla report, Mantashe also invited the media on a site visit to the president’s homestead. Within days, he had to recant the offer. “Our view in hindsight, we took a view… [to] not interfere with that space,” he said. It later emerged that Zuma was furious with Mantashe for inviting the media to his private home.
The relationship between Zuma and Mantashe has deteriorated since then and they have been on opposite sides of most issues. Last February, Mantashe came out in support of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan when it emerged that the Hawks were investigating him. Mantashe termed the investigation as “harassment”. When the Constitutional Court found that the president had violated the Constitution on his handling of the Nkandla matter, Mantashe invited all those with concerns to come express it to his office. But the NEC shut down the matter, resolving that Zuma’s apology should be accepted and no further discussion allowed.
Then, when Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas confirmed that the Guptas had offered him the position of finance minister, more allegations of “state capture” emerged. The NEC decided that ANC members with information about state capture should bring this forward to the office of the secretary general. Information was given to Mantashe but the process flopped after a while. Zuma’s allies bulldozed the NEC to shut down the secretary general’s investigation.
The ANC secretariat is not a very functional space due to the fact that Mantashe and his deputy Jessie Duarte are in opposing factions. Duarte is close to Zuma and has ties to the Gupta family. She denounced the state capture allegations in interviews with the Gupta-owned ANN7 television station and also lashed out at South Africa’s banks for closing down the Guptas’ bank accounts.
But Mantashe said the Public Protector’s report on state capture was important and distributed copies at an NEC meeting in November. On the basis of the report and the damage Zuma has wreaked in the ANC and the country, a group of NEC members argued that the president should step down. The attempt to unseat the president did not succeed but relations in the top leadership have been tenuous since then.
While Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, as a contender for the ANC presidency, is ostensibly the foe of the Zuma camp, it is Mantashe who is seen as the easy target and the obstacle who could frustrate their plans. As secretary general, Mantashe will oversee all the processes in preparation for the mid-year national policy conference and December elective conference. He is also ultimately in charge of the nominations process for the top six and NEC positions, and the selection of delegates to attend the conferences.
This puts Mantashe in an extremely influential position. But Mantashe is treading carefully, as is obvious by his conduct over the past few months. At the State of the Nation Address he commented to journalists that had he been the Speaker of Parliament, he would have acceded to the Democratic Alliance’s request that a moment of silence to be observed for the psychiatric patients who died as a result of government transferring them out of the Life Esidimeni facilities.
After an appearance at Gordhan’s Budget speech, Mantashe withdrew from the public eye, remaining noticeably silent about the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) crisis that culminated at the Constitutional Court earlier this month. A short trip to South America gave Mantashe an excuse for his silence. Vintage Mantashe would have lashed all and sundry over the threat to the social grants payments system, the corruption that led to the fiasco and exploitation of beneficiaries that has since been exposed.
But the 2017 Mantashe is effectively self-gagged due to the inevitable backlash from Zuma and his supporters.
Mantashe’s vulnerability was evident in the way that Marius Fransman, the ANC suspended Western Cape leader attacked him last week, accusing the secretary general of “destroying” Lungisa and trying to “get rid of popular elected leaders”. It is unusual for one of the top six leaders to be attacked in this way – for all that Zuma has done to the ANC and the country, ANC members are still wary about what they say about him.
Mantashe is avoiding confrontation with the heavy hitters – he has not taken action against ANCYL president Collen Maine for calling Gordhan an “impimpi” or denounced ANCWL president Bathabile Dlamini for her bungling in the Sassa matter. But he is shadow boxing with the surrogates of the Zuma camp, such as Lungisa and Fransman, telling the latter to “go sell ice cream”.
It must be worrying for Mantashe that nobody in particular is rushing to his defence. His constituency is also not clear. Mantashe was elected to his position because of the backing he got from Cosatu and the South Africa Communist Party (SACP). Cosatu has been rendered impotent and the SACP is so far outside the circle that all the threats of it contesting elections on its own is finally possible.
So while Mantashe has ambitions of remaining in the top six in December, the only way this is possible is if the Zuma camp is defeated. If the president and his allies succeed in getting their leadership slate elected, with Dlamini-Zuma as president, that would probably be the end of Mantashe’s political career. To keep his ambitions alive, Mantashe has to act to frustrate Zuma and his camp.
The 2017 ANC succession race is a multi-layered showdown with many people’s careers at stake. Mantashe had better devise a game plan and survival strategy or he could be a casualty of this battle by year-end. He has witnessed first hand how Zuma has crushed all his opponents. So he must know that he is now in the fight of his life.
Mantashe will also know that the most effective way to dislodge the opposing faction is to remove Zuma from power. But in an elective conference year, that will not be easy to achieve. The only way to do so might be for Mantashe to stand in the line of fire and go down with Zuma. Forcing the ANC to confront its leadership crisis is within his powers and the ANC stalwarts and veterans have proposed the mechanism of a consultative conference to do precisely that. Mantashe needs to survey the terrain and make a choice.
Shadowboxing with Zuma’s surrogates serves no purpose. He needs to aim higher and make sure he does not miss the target. DM
Photo: President Jacob Zuma and ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe (L) toast the 102nd birthday of the ANC during the launch of the party’s election manifesto at the Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit, Mpumalanga on Saturday, 11 January 2014. Picture: SAPA stringer
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