Analysis

The week to herald South Africa’s political future starts now

By Stephen Grootes 26 May 2019

With an announcement about the composition of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s brand new Cabinet this week, it appears that the eggs involved in this political omelette have become well and truly scrambled.

Reports that David Mabuza has presented himself to the ANC’s integrity commission, along with other members, suggests that there is still time, just, for him to be appointed again as deputy president. At the same time, the Public Protector, advocate Busisiwe Mkhwebane, may now be giving the strong impression that she is acting in concert with others, and not in the spirit of her mandate, in a campaign to prevent Pravin Gordhan from going back to Cabinet.

Despite all of this, Ramaphosa himself is likely to have known in advance that there were moves to limit his Cabinet choices. The question now may well be about his resolve, and whether he presses ahead despite these obvious political manoeuvres.

With the days ticking down to Ramaphosa’s announcement, it is clear that there is still much going on behind the scenes. A presidency statement late on Sunday afternoon indicated that cabinet announcement would be made later this week.

The Sunday Times reported on Sunday morning that Mabuza had presented himself to the ANC’s integrity commission, to deal with claims that were made against him. It is not entirely clear who lodged these claims and when. But the Electoral Commission did make public certain objections that had been lodged against candidates when they were named on the ANC’s list for the National Assembly. Thus, this development most likely refers to these claims.

The effect of such move, as Sam Mkokeli wrote in Daily Maverick on 22 May, would be extra pressure on other people who also had objections lodged against them, including the ANC’s chair, Gwede Mantashe. Sunday Times says that he too went to the integrity commission.

This raises several questions.

The first is, why are all of these people doing this now, on the eve of the new Cabinet announcement, rather than when the claims were first made against them? It would seem the only answer is because it is politically important now, and timing is of the essence.

This brings in another question, which is whether Mabuza really wants to be deputy president and is simply acting out of the dictates of his conscience, or whether this is a political manoeuvre.

The evidence that he has acted at the urging of conscience in the past appears fairly slim.

He has not taken many opportunities to answer questions in public and there have been vanishingly few interviews in which he has been willing to answer questions on the record. At the same time, because of recent history, claims that he has not been charged or prosecuted may not be enough to change public perception. People and voters are very aware of how hollow and the damaged the National Prosecuting Authority has become (its head, advocate Shamila Batohi confirmed this again on Friday). They will not see any NEC decision as proof of innocence.

This suggests that either he has been forced out of the position of deputy president and is now just rolling with the punch (and making life difficult for other people in the process) or has another plan. This plan would surely involve the longer term — and plans to take over from Ramaphosa.

However, the timing here is incredibly difficult.

The integrity commission chair George Mashamba has said several times in the past week that it only has the power to make recommendations to the ANC’s national executive committee. This means that it would be up to the NEC to make a final decision. The NEC, it is understood, is meant to meet on Thursday. This would seem to make to it virtually impossible for this to be cleared up in time for a Cabinet announcement on Monday.

At the same time, any NEC discussion about Mabuza is bound to be a difficult one. By their nature, discussions about disciplinary issues in an NEC are inherently political. Mabuza appeared to betray one faction at Nasrec and then associate himself with another, which does not really like him.

However, the overriding factor may well be that so many other people face integrity problems of their own (don’t forget Ramaphosa himself is dealing with a claim that his Nasrec campaign took money from Bosasa) that NEC members may feel it is in the personal interests of them all to simply allow Mabuza to be cleared.

This may be effective for him in the shorter term. But it won’t really have bought him that much in the longer term. Yes, he would have been “cleared”, but the public perception of him will not have been changed. And there would be no prohibition on other charges being brought at a later stage.

This means it is still difficult to determine what the real aim of his manoeuvre this past week really is and whether it might, in fact, be that he is really positioning himself to spend more time at Luthuli House.

What he is doing though — perhaps — is limiting Ramaphosa’s course of action. From what can be seen at the moment, there is simply no way for Ramaphosa to appoint Mabuza deputy president on Monday. Worse, it could mean he appoints someone like Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as deputy, but then has to remove her to make way for Mabuza later. That would be a politically difficult move for anyone, let alone Ramaphosa in a sharply divided party.

The situation around Gordhan appears much clearer.

On Friday, in a press conference that appeared timed to directly influence the appointment process to Cabinet, Busisiwe Mkhwebane released her findings around the early pension payout to then deputy SARS commissioner Ivan Pillay. The findings implicated Gordhan in wrongdoing, and she has said that Ramaphosa must take “appropriate disciplinary action” against him.

There seems to be no good answer to the question about why this finding was released now. Gordhan himself has said that she released the findings only days after receiving his response to the complaint, and thus did not appear to have taken them into account. He has announced that he would be urgently challenging the Public Protector’s findings in court.

Mkhwebane’s real problem stems from her first foray into political affairs, her findings on the Bancorp bail-out in which she then tried to order Parliament to change the Constitution about the mandate of the Reserve Bank. A hand-written note from a meeting with the State Security Agency that reads “how are they vulnerable” has never been properly explained.

It is exceedingly hard, at this stage, to escape the conclusion that Mkhwebane is being used to drive a campaign against Gordhan and Ramaphosa. The EFF, and its leader Julius Malema give every impression of being involved in this campaign. Speaking before Saturday’s inauguration, Malema said that if Ramaphosa appointed Gordhan to Cabinet he would be “no different to Zuma”.

Of course, this is rubbish.

Mkhwebane has merely said Gordhan should be disciplined, not removed or reappointed.

And the perception of the Public Protector is that she is not acting independently or impartially. The High Court in Pretoria found last week that she had not conducted herself properly in the Estina Dairy case, in which she appeared to refuse to investigate the role of then Free State Premier Ace Magashule. The ruling was simply scathing.

By now, no one was surprised that Mkhwebane lost so badly.

Meanwhile, Cosatu rushed out a statement on Friday calling on Ramaphosa to essentially ignore her findings, because she is “ill-qualified” to make findings on anyone.

Malema’s interests are clearly aligned with those in the ANC who appear to fear Gordhan’s appointment to a position in which he can continue to oversee the clean-up of state-owned entities. ANC NEC member Tony Yengeni spent much of Saturday tweeting his support of Mkhwebane and asking how Ramaphosa could ignore these findings.

The conclusion that Malema and some in the ANC are working in concert is one of the easiest to draw in the current mess.

Certainly, the urban public perception of Gordhan is that he is a reformer, and is clean, despite what the Public Protector has said about him. The fact that even then NPA head Advocate Shaun Abrahams had to drop charges against him simply cements this perception.

All of this boils down to what Ramaphosa will do when he makes his Cabinet announcement.

In many ways, he would surely have been expecting some kind of action to limit his appointments. It is no secret that some in his own party and in the EFF would try to find a way to oppose Gordhan’s reappointment. Gordhan’s case at the Public Protector had been simmering for months. He would also have known that Mabuza would have his own agenda and that Cabinet, and to be in it or not, would be a part of that.

As Professor Anthony Butler pointed out in Business Day last week, Ramaphosa has made a virtue of placing boundaries around himself. By stating publicly he would appoint only competent people to his Cabinet, he has limited his own choice of action. He seems to have a very clear idea of what he wants to do.

For the moment, it would appear to be a safe bet to presume that he will continue in this way, and to make the appointments he wants to make. And that he will do his utmost best to ensure that he is not knocked off track. DM

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