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The Mabuza Dilemma: A puzzle wrapped into … something...

South Africa


The Mabuza Dilemma: A puzzle wrapped into … something, anything

Deputy President David Mabuza at the ANC’s national executive committee meeting in Cape Town, 23 March 2018. Photo by Leila Dougan

On Tuesday morning, 28 May 2019, it was confirmed that Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng would conduct the swearing-in ceremony for the ANC’s deputy leader David Mabuza. This appears to remove the last legal hurdle to him becoming the deputy president, which means that a Cabinet announcement now appears imminent.

What has been the real aim of the dance around David Mabuza? His future as deputy president has been endlessly debated, and pundits have tried to decipher what exactly is going on with that future relative to the fractured world of internal ANC politics.

There is still some confusion and discussion about the meaning of the last few days. Why did Mabuza refuse to be sworn in last week, and what does this mean for his longer-term future? The answer may not necessarily lie in the longer term at all, but rather in immediate-term internal political wrangles. In short, it still does not seem that he has a strong chance of being an ANC leader and thus president in the future.

The search for the real reasons behind Mabuza’s manoeuvres of the last few days has occupied many column inches and talk radio time. This is not surprising; it was so unexpected, and so strange a stratagem that many relied on Mabuza’s past history of successful political calculation politics to decipher his motives.

However, one way to work out what may be behind it is to ask: what is different, now that he has been sworn in a week later than originally planned, than if he was simply sworn in last week?

If he had become a Member of Parliament last week, Cabinet would have been announced already and he would probably be Deputy President Mabuza already. Now, just a few days later, he is an MP and he is likely to be deputy president.

It’s hard to see what he has gained in the process.

Certain things can definitely be said, and some things can perhaps be said.

It may be that he might have somehow shown President Cyril Ramaphosa that he still has ways of placing boundaries around his behaviour, that he cannot be taken for granted. But that seems unlikely, considering the lengths to which he has gone over the last few days.

He could say for himself what the real reason is. But he has refused requests for interviews, and the people around him have said very little on the record. This leads immediately to speculation that it is about internal political manoeuvering in the ANC, rather than any motive that can be expressed publicly.

Presumably, the fact that Mabuza is now an MP means that he has passed the test he set for himself, to go through the ANC’s Integrity Commission. But this too raises questions. The commission has said on the record that it merely makes recommendations and that it is up to the National Executive Committee of the ANC to make decisions about its findings. The NEC has not met over the last few days and thus could not have made any decision that would alter Mabuza’s status.

A lot is claimed about how this move, to go before the Integrity Commission in a way in which no other person has done, will enhance his image. But no evidence is provided for this. Many people believe, rightly or wrongly, that he ruled Mpumalanga with some kind of iron fist. Anecdotes and claims are legion. The New York Times story which alleged corruption on his part was widely circulated throughout South Africa.

And people will be aware that, in the end, this is an ANC process, one that is inherently political, that will appear to clear him.

Instead of improving the way in which he is perceived, it is much more likely to increase the belief that the ANC is simply unable to discipline its own members.

Consider the evidence: again and again this issue has come up, with promise after election promise from people in the party that they will finally hold leaders to account. It is these promises and a result of the party’s own concern (as expressed in discussion documents before conferences) that the Integrity Commission was established in the first place.

And now, someone about whom claims have floated for many many years has appeared to have been cleared by this process, within days and without a proper process followed.

This is the damage that has been wrought by years and years of the party using the slogan “innocent until proven guilty”, and ignoring the concept of a higher standard when applied to office bearers. For that, it only has itself to blame.

All of this points to some other dynamic that is playing out in the ANC. It is clearly not about public perception, if it was, there would have been a range of interviews. It does not appear to be about any power-play involving Ramaphosa, because nothing has changed in that dynamic, as far as can be seen. This suggests that it is about some power-play involving others in the ANC, in a situation that appears too opaque to fully understand at this moment.

In the meantime, there is the complicated politics of the Tripartite Alliance, and the SACP and Cosatu to consider.

On Tuesday morning, SACP spokesperson Alex Mashilo had a fascinating response to the question of whether or not his party thought Mabuza should be Deputy President.

Talking to SAfm, he said that they were in talks with Ramaphosa over the Cabinet, and that, “it is important to preserve the integrity of the consultation process… and that once the Cabinet has been announced we will be able to give our assessment of it”.

This seems to suggest that they don’t want to talk about this beforehand, and are awaiting the Cabinet announcement, like everyone else.

However, it also reveals something else: for many years the SACP (and Cosatu) have found themselves powerless to stop ANC decisions. For all of the lamentation and anger (and sometimes, towards the end of the Zuma era, the fury), these two groups have been unable to actually influence or prevent certain Cabinet decisions. And now, it seems, nothing has changed. If Mabuza is appointed, there will be nothing they can do to stop it.

This has huge echoes with what happened a decade ago: Zuma was the chosen tsunami, the person backed by Cosatu and the SACP. And they had no real control over what he did. It appears that nothing has changed.

In so many ways the issue of Mabuza has these echoes of the past. Then, Zuma was the person who the ANC had elected its leader, despite his track record and claims of corruption. Despite warnings from the media (which were ignored – instead journalists were criticised and publicly attacked) and to the horror of much of the urban middle class, Zuma became president. The lost decade that followed was the result of that momentous mistake.

Now Mabuza is the person who has claims against him (the claims are much more serious, in some claims alleging he was involved in murders, but unlike Zuma, there is no conviction of anyone close to him for crimes involving him, no Schabir Shaik as it were), and yet the ANC is likely to appoint him to the position of deputy president, only a heartbeat away from leading the entire country.

And yet, in the longer term, none of this strengthens the case that Mabuza will ever be president.

In 2009 the ANC was much more united than it is now, and supporting Zuma for a decade essentially destroyed that unity. It seems unlikely to be put together easily, and could certainly not withstand the presidential candidacy of Mabuza. Civil society and other groups that opposed Zuma have become energised and are now well-funded and resourced. There is a huge amount of case law that makes it much harder for someone not fit and proper to be appointed to the NPA or the Hawks that did not exist when Zuma took over.

In short, it still seems it will be very, very difficult for Mabuza to actually ever become president, both of the ANC and the country unless there is a complete sea-change in how he is perceived.

The events of the last few days have not contributed to any improvement of his image. DM


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