The day Mabuza shocked the nation, releasing a torrent of questions into the political wilderness with precious few answers

By Stephen Grootes 23 May 2019

Eastern Cape MEC Pemmy Majodina who has been appointed ANC chief whip in the National Assembly with President Cyril Ramaphosa and David Mabuza at the start of the ANC's caucus meeting in parliament . Date: 21 May 2019, Photo: ESA ALEXANDER/SUNDAY TIMES

Is David Mabuza’s shock decision not to become a member of Parliament (and therefore cannot be Deputy President of South Africa) part of a longer, deeper game? And will this strengthen President Cyril Ramaphosa’s hand in the high-stakes power struggle within the ANC?

Wednesday morning, 22 May 2019, brought a series of shocks, as the ANC confirmed that its Deputy President, David Mabuza, would not be swearing the oath to become a member of Parliament. This means that he will not be appointed Deputy President of South Africa by President Cyril Ramaphosa after his inauguration on Saturday.

This led to intense speculation about what will happen next, and what the real plan behind Mabuza’s decision actually is. However, this decision does appear to open several doors for Ramaphosa, and could eventually see his former rival, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, becoming his deputy. If this is what occurs, it could, almost paradoxically, put Ramaphosa in a stronger position.

The level of surprise and shock at Mabuza’s announcement, on an ANC Media WhatsApp group, was hard to express on Wednesday morning. He is someone who is generally seen as a strategic player, and with a good eye towards making long term decisions which benefit his career. “His” move led to immediate contemplation that he is playing a longer game, and to suggestions that Mabuza being left alone at Luthuli House might, in fact, weaken Ramaphosa.

It is indeed possible that this is the case.

However, there are several questions that need to be asked that might take us closer to what the real agenda is here.

The first of these is whether it was deliberate or an accident that this announcement was made at the last minute.

If it was deliberate, that suggests there is a much longer game in play. However, it would also be a surprise that such a decision could have been made, and then not leaked beforehand. The ANC finds it hard to keep secrets, and a Top Six as divided as this generation finds it harder still. It would surely be unlikely that the Top Six could keep this a secret for longer than a week.

But consider the alternative, that it was a last-minute decision by Mabuza. Again, this would be hard to understand. What could drive him to make this decision at the last minute? Surely very few things would be powerful enough to make him decide that he would not occupy the position of Deputy President.

Then there is the decision itself.

In almost all politics it is better to occupy a position of power than not to. Even the position of Deputy President, with its slightly odd lack of political decision-making power, would surely be better than no position at all (the Constitution says that the duties of the Deputy President are assigned to her or him by the President, which is why Thabo Mbeki put Jacob Zuma in charge of the Moral Regeneration Movement and Zuma put Ramaphosa in charge of Sudan, Eskom and Lesotho). But even so, as Deputy President, you do have the power of the bully pulpit (the power to speak in public and have most of the press corps turn up) and the fact that you will be acting president on a regular basis.

Also, Mabuza was extremely eager to be appointed Deputy President just over a year ago, and to occupy the position until now. What has changed?

Could it be that he has realised the limitations of the position? Or that he has had a big falling-out with Ramaphosa? Or that he is, as Sam Mkokeli and Ferial Haffajee have said, playing a longer game within the ANC?

Then there is the stated reason for this decision.

The ANC’s statement says Mabuza has made this decision because the Integrity Commission has certain questions about his conduct. It says that he “would like to have an opportunity to address the Integrity Commission on these allegations”. That may well be the case. And the claims against him, essentially that he ran Mpumalanga as Ace Magshule is alleged to have run the Free State, are fairly strong (and featured on the front page of The New York Times.)

However, this decision puts him in the hands of the Integrity Commission. It now has power over him. And he has absolutely no way of knowing how long this process could take. It is usually far better to be in a political position and wait for the findings against you to be made; it means the onus is on the body to make the findings and then to recommend that you step down. In this case, he is now at their mercy.

This is unusual for a politician of his stated strategic powers. It means that he is unlikely to become Deputy President in this forthcoming term.

Then there are the other factors that have always counted against Mabuza, even in the long game.

The first is his health. It is publicly known that he had to receive treatment in Russia after being poisoned. Then, as late as November 2018, it’s understood he spent two weeks in Russia receiving treatment. Generally speaking, it is bad news for a politician to allow it to be known that they are ill; it gives the impression that they are weak. It is even worse to be out of the country for that period of time. This could be important, in that it may curtail what long-term plans he could have. But it is impossible to know this for sure at the moment.

Then there is the structural problem that refuses to go away for Mabuza. There is no evidence that he has become any more popular around the country outside of Mpumalanga. This is the problem he shares with Ace Magashul – neither has a national following. This means their only path to power is through the sometimes treacherous business of forging alliances with leaders in other provinces (in the past, all of those who have become Deputy Presidents of the ANC since 1994 have had genuine national followings – think Zuma, Kgalema Motlanthe, Ramaphosa himself: Mabuza breaks this trend).

In the end, there may well be a much bigger problem for Mabuza, around whether he would actually be accepted as President for a sustained period.

Many sectors of this society campaigned against Zuma when serious evidence of wrongdoing on his part came to light. Mabuza would be starting any term in office with claims already being made on the record. This would make it much harder for him to win an election as leader of the ANC (especially considering the evidence that the “Cyril Factor” was crucial in helping the ANC win this last election).

To put it very starkly and crudely, would this country, considering the generally held urban view of Mabuza, accept him as President?

Then, to the immediate future, and what will happen next.

Under the Constitution, it would appear difficult for Ramaphosa to make no appointment of a Deputy President when he announces his Cabinet.

Lawyers could argue over this, but the text of the Constitution says:

The Cabinet consists of the President, as head of the Cabinet, a Deputy President and Ministers.

The President appoints the Deputy President and Ministers, assigns their powers and functions, and may dismiss them.”


The President must select the Deputy President from among the members of the National Assembly.”

This could be read as saying that a Cabinet is not a Cabinet without a Deputy President, which could place a legal obligation on Ramaphosa to make such an appointment.

In some ways, the legal position may not be that significant, because politically it could be embarrassing for the ANC as an organisation not to be able to appoint a Deputy President. One can imagine both the DA and the EFF making much hay of this in the National Assembly.

So to the next question – who will be appointed to the position?

It would seem for the moment that there are two front-runners.

First, there is Paul Mashatile, the Treasurer-General of the ANC. He is often perceived as working as a political unit with Mabuza.

However, under the ANC’s constitution, the position of Treasurer-General is a full-time job, and this might have to be changed for him to accept the position. It might also be a stretch to suggest that it could be him, based on what looks like a lack of support from outside Gauteng.

Then there is the much more intriguing possibility of Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, with some also mentioning Lindiwe Sisulu and Naledi Pandor.

Dlamini-Zuma, obviously, is the person who ran against Ramaphosa in the ANC’s Nasrec conference. However, she has appeared to support Ramaphosa at every public opportunity since then. She is currently the minister in charge of Saturday’s inauguration.

This may appear counterintuitive, but this could be a political coup for Ramaphosa.

While she did run against him, and was the symbol of the Zuma faction, it might be that she has fallen out with those who pushed her into that position. Certainly, on the campaign trail she looked less than enthusiastic. She has also worked closely with President Thabo Mbeki, but remained as a minister in Zuma’s administration, proving that she is a loyal politician.

If that is the case, Dlamini-Zuma would be an inspired choice.

Ramaphosa could be seen as the ultimate peacemaker, the man who gave an important position to the person who nearly beat him at Nasrec. Every single time someone like Magashule accuses him of “triumphalism” he would be able to point to this appointment. And, if she has turned against those who pushed her campaign so strongly, they would never be able to say that in public.

At the same time, she might find that the only source of her political power is, in fact, Ramaphosa, and thus would become politically closer to him over time. All in all, this could be very useful for Ramaphosa in the longer term.

In the meantime, and in the shorter term, this may mean he has more freedom to appoint who he wants to Cabinet. He has suggested that his choice will be generally accepted by everyone. He may now be a bit closer to doing just that. DM



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