The last time I encountered Mzwanele Manyi was in February 2018, on a lonely stretch of dirt road on the fringes of a town called Vrede, Free State. I was waiting at the gates of the post-apocalyptic Vrede Dairy Project, AKA Estina, and Manyi rolled up behind me in a black BMW X5. He was at the time the head of ANN7, or whatever the infamously crummy TV station was called after he “purchased” it from the Gupta family in a controversial vendor sale a few months earlier.
We were both there to cover one of the signature stories of the Zuma era: How Ace Magashule’s sordid provincial fiefdom had stolen from locals in order to create a fake farming project that funnelled cash to Gupta front companies. I tapped on the passenger door, peering into the tenebrous sterility of German luxury, hoping for a word or two of encouragement from the media tycoon. The window didn’t budge.
The ANC’s former rogue communications assassin wasn’t talking.
As a representative of this news organisation, I was of course barred from entering Estina. But later that day, Manyi’s X5 was ushered into Gupta Valhalla, where he and his propagandists spent the afternoon taking pictures of smiling cows and gleaming machinery — a 50s-era Soviet campaign for an Uzbek kolkhoz, moments before the people and cattle are burned alive in a ditch.
We knew at the time that Estina was a scam so significant that it financed the first Big Fat Gupta wedding and much more besides, all of it at the expense of 100 or so Free State agricultural entrepreneurs. (The media routinely portrayed the intended beneficiaries as impoverished, but this wasn’t necessarily the case. Many of those I met were hustlers in the best sense of the term, trading livestock in order to put their kids through university. Big dreams died in Vrede.)
And yet Manyi and ANN7 (or whatever it was called) would have nothing to do with either the mainstream narrative or the facts. As far as their coverage was concerned, Estina was the Nike of cow shit.
Anyway, flash forward 18 months, and Manyi is now the most prominent member of a small yet somehow newsy political party called the African Transformation Movement, known more widely by the hilariously appropriate acronym ATM. Hilarious because Manyi is every inch a ranking member of the Zumocracy, the faction of ANC cadres that has strip-mined South Africa into penury. After the fall of the House of Zuma, Manyi had no home in Cyril Ramaphosa’s ANC, and so he hummed and hah-ed like LeBron James mulling a new billion-dollar NBA contract, and finally joined the nascent ATM in January 2019.
But nothing is simple with Manyi. It turns out that the party is less a party than it is a subplot in the ANC’s sordid, endless telenovela — News24 reported last week that Ace Magashule, the ANC’s secretary-general, is alleged to have started up the start-up, as it were.
The story goes something like this: In 2018, Magashule, a cabal of old Zuma cronies, and ranking members of The Twelve Apostles Church in Christ decided to form a party that would sit on the right of the ANC, ideologically speaking. (That the ANC doesn’t have an ideology can be ignored for the moment.)
A party called the African Transformation Congress was targeted, and the former general-secretary of the South African Council of Messianic Churches in Christ (SACMCC), Buyisile Ngqulwana, recently submitted an affidavit claiming that both Magashule and Zuma effectively helped hijack the vision that would allow independent charismatic churches a political home. (Ace Himself was allegedly responsible for changing the name to ATM, which, in retrospect, makes total sense.)
Understandably, Ngqulwana’s revelations caused a media storm, after which he temporarily withdrew the affidavit, which “remains a live issue between the parties”, as the lawyers say. Following which, the ANC National Executive Committee has tasked the National Working Committee with investigating Magashule’s allegedly “treasonous” involvement in this affair.
But why would the secretary-general of one political party — especially a governing party — secretly support the creation of another party? This is a good question. Surely if Ace builds the ATM, he’s uniquely able to draw from it. But withdraw what? Political capital, perhaps?
“[The Zuma/Magashule faction] wanted us to not get a majority, they wanted to come to the ANC with the votes, saying: ‘We will help you if you leave the [Zuma people] alone,’ ” one NEC member is reported to have told News24.
In the super-paranoid ANC death machine, the formation of every small African nationalist party is a sign of fraying hegemony and betrayal. “Yes, this thing is not just about the secretary-general but to broadly study the small parties and check whether comrades were involved,” a second NEC member simpered to News24.
This is classic Soviet-style Big Party politics — there can be only one. And so now, every comrade in the party — probably including Ace Magashule — believes that Ace Magashule is buying the support of the council of independent churches by helping them to start a viable political movement. Whether or not this is true or not barely matters, because no one knows what the fuck is going on in the ANC, very much including the everyone within the ANC.
And in the middle of this mini-melodrama: Mzwanele Manyi, one of democratic South Africa’s greatest performance artists.
Just look what he had to say at the January media event announcing his defection.
“The ANC shows all the signs of being captured by imperialist forces,” he deadpanned, somehow able to keep a straight face. He told us that he had taken up a role as the ATM’s policy chief, and immediately presented a menu rich with items from the far right of the African nationalist buffet.
1) A State Bank.
2) The “proper recognition of Traditional Leaders” who “must be given a tangible role to help guide our citizens back to our core customs and values, but applying them in our daily lives to shape our future and the modern state.”
3) The amendment of the Constitution to reinstate the death penalty.
Wait, the death penalty?
“It cannot be that the rights of the killers are respected more than the rights of those that are being killed,” said Manyi at his presser. “South Africa is a haven for thugs, people kill other people elsewhere and run to South Africa for safety.”
Watching the government turn a lethal injection programme into SA Airlink is probably not the most effective way to deal with endemic crime rates.
That said, and regardless of the intrigue that surrounds the party, it remains a brilliant idea on paper: Bring the charismatic churches and their millions of supporters under a single political umbrella. It’s early days, but the ATM most certainly has a constituency. In the May 2019 general election, the party secured 79,830 votes, good enough for two seats in Parliament. As the ANC slides closer and closer to 50%, and as the opposition continues to fragment, two seats are a decent beginning — five years from now, Heaven is the limit.
So maybe Ace’s nefariously evil plan is coming together?
Well, in politics, it pays not to be too tricky. Let’s defer to the party’s president, the absurdly fresh-faced Vuyolwethu Zungula, who is so young he makes the EFF central command team look like the ANC Youth League. He’s also quietly confident and does not stumble over his words or his concepts. If he was in the ANC — and he kinda is — he’d count as the smartest person in the party.
We recently met at a hipster coffee shop in Rosebank, Johannesburg, where he told me that he has never been a politician, and has never been part of a party until the formation of the ATM. As a student leader, he formed an association with the African independent churches — the Episcopalian outliers who only get media attention when one of their pastors uses insect repellant as a liturgical device.
“These are the churches poor and underprivileged people go to,” he told me. “What was the bone of contention was that they were neglected by the ruling party — the ANC would go to them for votes, and then ignore them and just support the mainline churches. Because they are not a part of the official council of churches, they needed to create a voice for themselves. They said: Let us find someone who can work with people who come from various backgrounds, and who has an understanding of Christianity.”
Hence, the previously unknown, and now nationally notorious, President Zungula.
Is he a devout Christian, I wanted to know?
“More spiritual than religious,” he told me.
I followed with a question as fundamental to bankers as it is to South African political observers: Who stocks the ATM with money?
“A lot of people don’t understand the strength of these churches,” said Zungula. “The congregants — there’s the history of contributing. We found it easy to speak to the congregants. We said, for it to work, we need money. And they gave.”
As for the platform?
“Well, I can explain what we stand for. Capital punishment — it cannot be normalised that 57 people are murdered every day.” (52 people per day are murdered in South Africa.) “We want to go back. In 1995, what was the public sentiment? You will find that people didn’t want abolition. A certain section of society imposed it.” (The apartheid killing machine left a bad taste in some peoples’ mouths, but memories are short, and apparently, 76% of millennial-generation South Africans want capital punishment reinstated.)
The economy, Zungula told me, “must be owned by South Africans”.
“The foundation of economic growth must be local. In the micro-economy, you find that those economies are owned by people who are not South African. We are not protecting or prioritising South Africans. It’s easy for foreign nationals to come here and work. We are simply saying let’s catch up with the rest of the world.”
As for their take on crime, it doesn’t stop at the death penalty:
“We want all prisoners to work for the state for free,” Zungula told me, much like an Alabama governor during a Klan rally. “It cannot be that you go to prison, get access to food and shelter and healthcare services. Law-abiding citizens do not get that. Imagine my own daughter was raped. Indirectly I’m paying for her rapist to eat! Girls miss nearly eight days a month of school because they need sanitary towels. Why not get prisoners to make that product? When they go to prison, they should not think they are on holiday.”
Isn’t a South African prison a bit harsher than, say, your average five-star leisure resort?
“No. Not really.”
“It’s like, they’re getting paid for committing crimes.”
Okay, I give up.
And as for the assertion that the ATM is pro-Zuma?
Zungula didn’t blink.
“Firstly we are not a Zuma party,” he said. “That is the biggest misconception peddled by the media. There hasn’t been one single shred of evidence to back up these assertions. The party was not formed to protect Mr Zuma. In no ways is Mr Zuma or Mr Magashule involved.”
Here in the narrative, we must return to the ex-general-secretary of the South African Council of Messianic Churches in Christ, Buyisile Ngqulwana, who you’ll recall filed the affidavit that kicked off this whole nightmare. According to Zungula, Ngqulwana was not a reliable stakeholder. But I reached the man by phone, and while he was at first reluctant to get into the sandpit, he soon opened up about how everything has unfolded.
“It comes to The Twelve Apostles Church in Christ,” said Ngqulwana, “which hijacked the vision. Zungula belonged to the church, and the Chief Apostle” — Professor Caesar Nongqunga — “is the spiritual head of the ATM. They are linked with Zuma and Magashule. They wanted an alternative political party because Cyril is going with the worst, and trying to get away from the Brics thing.”
Whoa, Brics? The fake-ass geopolitical alliance with Brazil, Russia, India and China?
Watch Zuma address The Twelve Apostles Church in Christ:
This shit was getting properly confusing. I asked Ngqulwana if he’d personally met with Zuma and Magashule.
“Yes,” he told me. “And the money is coming from the Guptas. We said on the council, we don’t want to be part of this corruption, and that is why we are distancing ourselves from the ATM.”
At this stage, absolutely no proof has been furnished to back any of this up. The matter remains before the courts.
As for Manyi?
“Yes! Manyi — what does he want here? This thing is a church thing. We don’t want our churches to be tainted with corruption. Zungula stole the party — we’ve opened a case against him, a case of theft and fraud.”
I know, I know — all of this is all so exhausting.
But weirdly and sadly: It’s super important. Because regardless of the specifics, the story of how the ATM started spitting secrets is the story of South Africa in mid-2019. The ANC has completely come apart, so much so that the infighting extends to fringe parties started by factions in alliance with megachurch pastors and their factotums. And those megachurches have real, extensive, country-wide power — that’s why Zuma and Magashule have courted them so assiduously. (And why the Ramaphosa camp is foolish for not doing so.)
To nurture their political aspirations is to nurture their influence — this is the building of a patriarchal club of Big Men that represents a long game that will almost certainly pay off. It is — come on, let’s give Magashule credit — rather brilliant.
Whoever tries to take on Magashule, beware: They’ll be facing down a secretary-general that has amassed a power-base so vast that it includes the wackiest denizens of God’s endless kingdom, the Doom-spraying, spina-bifida healing, Maybach-driving, private-jet flying, Zuma-loving, capital-punishment-bestowing elite of The Lord Almighty Inc.
Zungula, however, dismissed such theories:
“This thing of Ace Magashule has nothing to do with ATM. It is the ANC’s own internal battles,” he told me. He sent me images of Ngqulwana shaking hands with President Ramaphosa — another layer of skullduggery dumped on top of a compost heap of intrigue. Perhaps this was a plot hatched by the Ramaphosa faction, hatched in order to take down Magashule via the National Working Committee.
Help me, Jesus.
I looked for guidance, somewhere, anywhere. But once again, Mzwanele Manyi was refusing to talk.
“Hi Rich,” he wrote. “I am trying my utmost to submarine. It’s time for the younger generation to shine. Vuyo [Zungula] and I are aligned in issues [sic]. If you have already spoken to him, I am covered.”
I could almost hear the cows of Estina screaming in anguished frustration. DM
In other news...
South Africa is in a very real battle. A political fight where terms such as truth and democracy can seem more of a suggestion as opposed to a necessity.
On one side of the battle are those openly willing to undermine the sovereignty of a democratic society, completely disregarding the weight and power of the oaths declared when they took office. If their mission was to decrease society’s trust in government - mission accomplished.
And on the other side are those who believe in the ethos of a country whose constitution was once declared the most progressive in the world. The hope that truth, justice and accountability in politics, business and society is not simply fairy tale dust sprinkled in great electoral speeches; but rather a cause that needs to be intentionally acted upon every day.
However, it would be an offensive oversight not to acknowledge that right there on the front lines, alongside whistleblowers and civil society, stand the journalists. Armed with only their determination to inform society and defend the truth, caught in the crossfire of shots fired from both sides.
If you believe in supporting the cause and the work of Daily Maverick then take your position on the battleground and sign up to Maverick Insider today.
For whatever amount you choose, you can support Daily Maverick and it only takes a minute.
"You at this time can only be destroyed by yourselves from within and not from without. You have reached the point where the victory is to be won from within and can only be lost from within." ~ Marcus Garvey