Over the past few weeks, there has been much public discussion around the possibility of Deputy President David Mabuza becoming the leader of the ANC, and then President. For many in the urban middle classes, this would signal difficult times ahead. Mabuza’s reputation among this constituency is such that many believe they have something to fear from him. His reluctance to answer questions on the record about his history and the claims against him only entrenches these perceptions.
Despite his obvious political gifts, and the position that he now holds, there are still very significant and important obstacles to his attempts to become president. On balance, it may be close to impossible for him to achieve what may be his long-term aim.
There are many claims made about Mabuza: That he was involved in political murders; that he enabled lying about matric results as far back as 1998; that he is guilty of creating a massively corrupt system in Mpumalanga.
Then there is the Russian connection, and the fact he says he was poisoned. Mabuza has said, on the record, that he was poisoned in August 2015. It is certainly a fact that he was not seen for three months, and then received help from the Guptas to fly to Russia for medical treatment. It is also known that he went back to Russia in 2018 for more treatment.
What is complicated about this is that Mabuza’s province has been under-reported since 1994. The province, and its politics, has only received attention when someone has been killed or when something dramatic has gone wrong with a national effort, such as the 2010 Football World Cup. And in 2010 when one reporter did try to bring national attention to Mabuza, he was arrested for offences that were never fully explained.
The result of this and other dynamics is that there is a sort of fog over much of what happened. Many people may claim to know that Mabuza has been accused of being involved in murder, but could not give specifics about what happened. The reporter who has probably done more than most to uncover the provincial mess, Sizwe Sama Yende, has taken great pains to make it clear he has not written that Mabuza was involved in paying assassins to kill people.
Mabuza’s allies, of course, will make the point that none of this has been properly investigated by police, and no charges have been lodged against him. They may also point to the ANC’s integrity commission and a process that seems, for the moment at least, to have somehow cleared him. Urban voters in Gauteng are unlikely to be convinced by yet another ANC process claiming a leader is clean despite strong claims against them.
As a result, none of this will change the public perception of the SA’s deputy president.
And this, perhaps, creates what might be his greatest political weakness. To become the leader of the ANC he would have to be able to show that his face on an election poster could win an election. The current debate around the importance of President Cyril Ramaphosa to the ANC’s recent election results shows how important the symbol of the party is.
It seems doubtful at this time that Mabuza will be able to change this perception.
Part of his problem is that the lessons, and pain, of the era of State Capture and President Jacob Zuma are simply too raw. South African voters well remember what happened the last time a person came into office with a string of corruption allegations against them. It is surely unlikely that voters will forget that lesson soon.
At the same time, other structures are likely to limit any future attempt by anyone to govern the way Zuma did.
First, civil society groups are energised, networks have been created and people are simply very aware. No longer could a creeping campaign of removing independent people from important institutions and having them replaced by acolytes be conducted without whistles being blown. Loudly.
The law has also evolved. Judgment after judgment has limited the behaviour of people who make plainly political decisions. This means that organisations would no longer have to go through the appeals process: So many issues were raised through the courts that there is now much-settled law around, for example, the powers of the Public Protector or whether someone who lied under oath can be appointed to the position of National Director of Public Prosecutions.
It would also seem unlikely that people would support someone who may well rely on Russian medical help simply to stay alive — particularly after the experience of Zuma and the Russian nuclear deal.
But still, there is an even bigger problem facing Mabuza.
For him to achieve what may be his ultimate goal, there is a certain time frame. Like everyone, he is limited by his own mortality. He probably would only be able to take over after Ramaphosa and would not be able to wait longer than that. This means that he has to try to win the conference currently scheduled for December 2027 (unless something dramatic happens in 2022).
The tensions in the ANC mitigate against anyone being able to challenge the incumbent. The current dynamics playing out around Ramaphosa and secretary-general Ace Magashule have their roots in what happened before Nasrec. While the exact date of the start of this dynamic could be debated, they had begun by at least January 2017. Two years and five months later they are still playing out.
It would seem difficult to imagine that a whole new dynamic could have been created in which Mabuza would be able to take over from Ramaphosa in just eight years’ time.
Instead, it seems the ANC really has one of two options. It can coalesce around Ramaphosa (as it currently appears to be doing, albeit slowly), or it can continue the process of fracturing. It seems difficult at this point to imagine a third way in which Mabuza is able to actually create a process in which it coalesces around him. And, if Ramaphosa does consolidate his power, then Mabuza could become less and less powerful, in that the source of his power, the branches he controlled at Nasrec, become less important.
This is made much harder by the fact that there is no evidence that Mabuza has been able to broaden his political constituency beyond his home province. As he only has Mpumalanga strongly backing him, it means that he can only broaden his constituency through deals with other provincial leaders.
This would be much more difficult to do than it was for previous ANC deputy presidents who had their own national followings before they came to the job (as all of from 1994 have done).
Of course, it is possible, but unlikely, that a series of other dynamics happen.
While Mabuza has done no sit-down interviews in recent times, and has only appeared to take questions briefly in the uncontrolled situations of what journalists call a “grab” (which is much to the advantage of a politician), his speeches in English appear aimed directly at the middle class. They are of superior quality, and suggest that he is very aware of the need to change his image.
Then there is the position that he holds now. As deputy president he is always guaranteed attention — any speech that he gives will receive significant airplay. This means that he is able to change the direction of debates. And if he were to play a significant role in one or two debates, that could give him a shot at the power slot.
One of the key moments over the next few months is likely to involve the ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule. If Mabuza is seen to be hard on him and his alleged corruption and perhaps even play a hand in creating a situation in which Magashule has to resign, that could allow him to claim that he is opposed to corruption and is not afraid of talking the talk.
But in the meantime, a fearless NPA and a Hawks unit with proper investigative capacity could be his greatest threats. If the claims that he is linked to corruption and murder in Mpumalanga turn out to be true, that could be very dangerous to him. The simple laying of a charge with substance by a prosecutor could be enough to end his political career. Pressure on him to resign as deputy president would grow and his sacking would be almost inevitable.
Mabuza is likely now to be watched closely. In many ways, changing his image is up to him, he can choose to address the claims made against him or ignore them. That is his political choice, and will have consequences either way. But he will know that there is no way to ignore this intense observation. As a result, he will have to move very, very carefully, and also very slowly.
And it seems that the direction in which he may want to move is up a very steep hill. DM