South Africa


Dangerous Liaisons! Blackmail! Affairs of state, the Fourth Estate, and Gwede Mantashe

ANC Cabinet Minister Gwede Mantashe. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

In many democracies, politicians found to be having affairs or behaving badly in their private lives find themselves having to resign. By and large, our politicians have been spared that fate. But now another line has apparently been crossed – bribing journalists to look the other way.

The private lives of politicians sometimes become public lives and explode on to the front pages of Sunday newspapers. A case in point occurred this weekend, with claims in the Sunday World that Energy and Mineral Affairs Minister (and ANC national chair) Gwede Mantashe was involved with a young woman. The story claims that this resulted in a love triangle, with Finance Minister Tito Mboweni also involved.

Amid the “love story” is the claim that Mantashe told the Sunday World he had paid money to their journalists to hush up the story. This has implications for SA politics and media in a culture in which the attitudes of people to the private lives of politicians are changing.

In many democracies, politicians found to be having affairs or behaving badly in their private lives find themselves having to resign. This tends to be the case in the “Anglo-Saxon democracies” such as the UK, the US and perhaps Canada.

In the UK, the sheer sleaze of John Major’s Conservative Party government up until 1997 was part of the reason he lost to Tony Blair’s Labour Party. In the US, Bill Clinton was impeached after lying about his affair with Monica Levinski: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman. Not a single time, never.”

(In an interesting sidebar to Clinton’s impeachment scandal, it claimed careers of not one, but two GOP House Speakers: Newt Gingrich lost his gavel partly because of an affair, and was replaced by Bob Livingstone, whose long-forgotten infidelity was then timeously dug up. He resigned the same day the news was about to hit the airwaves, thus becoming the shortest-lived Speaker in modern history. The third Speaker, Denis Hastert, who replaced Livingstone was not shabby either. He was sentenced to 15 months jail in 2016 for molesting at least four boys while serving as a high-school wrestling coach in 1970s; he was caught trying to buy the silence of at least one of them. The GOP, always a true family values party…)

By and large, SA politicians have managed to fly above their daily indiscretions. Crossing the lines between politics, business and family now carries a true South African flavour.

Cabinet ministers have been married to each other, and there are a number of families in the ANC hierarchy – siblings, spouses or even parents and children. Max and Lindiwe Sisulu are brother and sister, Charles and Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula were in Cabinet together as spouses, while Angie Motshekqa and her husband Mathole span both executive and legislative branches of the government. Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi was a minister while Jabu Moleketi was a deputy minister, and her brother Arthur Fraser was State Security DG. Mduduzi Manana is the son of former Mpumalanga MEC Sibongile Manana… the list goes on.

This matters if decisions are made in a way in which people are not aware of these relationships or if family members benefit from political decisions.

This is what makes President Cyril Ramaphosa so vulnerable to those who oppose the breakup of Eskom or introduction of independent power producers (IPPs) to Eskom’s grid. They claim that Patrice Motsepe, Ramaphosa’s brother-in-law, will benefit from these contracts (Ramaphosa’s wife, Dr Tshepo Motsepe, is the sister of Patrice Motsepe). Their claim received additional ammunition when Jeff Radebe was the minister of energy. He is married to Bridgette Radebe, another sister of Patrice Motsepe.

Then there is the recent claim, on the front page of a Botswana newspaper, that Bridgette Motsepe had some kind of relationship with former Botswana president Ian Khama. Khama denied the claim in a spat that saw Bridgette Radebe being declared persona non grata by Botswana’s government.

In many ways, this is to be expected. Before the end of apartheid, people in the movement were likely to spend much time together, whether in exile, or while suffering oppression at home. It’s inevitable that some of them would marry or have relationships.

However, a new dynamic may be entering the system.

In 2017, Jeff Radebe admitted to sending lewd messages to a young photographer with the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS). Then, this weekend, Mantashe was accused of the interaction with a young woman who also, we are told, had a relationship with Mboweni.

The problem here is that Mantashe, by his own admission, was happy to pay the journalists involved R70,000 to keep the story quiet.

This crosses several lines. Some of them are ethical and some have political ramifications.

If Mantashe is prepared to pay this money to keep something embarrassing or problematic (but by no means illegal) quiet, what else is he prepared to do? Just pay money or use his political influence as well? His ministry is also a regulatory ministry: it has the power to grant and deny licences. This power was allegedly used by Mantashe’s predecessor, Mosebenzi Zwane, for the Guptas’ business and political purposes. (Sibyanye Platinum sued his department, claiming he used mining inspectors to try to close down one of their mines.)

While no one has made such a claim against Mantashe, decisions that he makes as minister could now be criticised by opposition politicians and even some in his party.

The concern is that such an embarrassing action by someone in political power could lead to someone else gaining leverage over them, a significant risk for a person in such a critical position.

There is no guarantee that if you pay a blackmailer they won’t come back and demand more – Mantashe was surely foolish to pay the first time. For a man of his political experience that beggars belief.

The incident raises a number of issues for the media.

The Sunday World editor, Makhudu Sefara, says he wants the names of the journalists to whom Mantashe gave money. Mantashe has refused to tell him.

The claims against the paper come as journalism and the media generally are being delegitimised. In some cases, reporters may have taken brown envelopes, in others, media houses have given the impression they’re being used to fight political battles or that their owners treat them as personal weaponry. Considering that a culture of corruption has seeped into SA politics, particularly during the Zuma era, and that so many sectors of society have been touched by corruption, it would be hard to believe that the media remains immune.

There are cases of media malfeasance on other parts of the continent. In Nigeria, for example, it is reported that journalists will only cover an event after being paid a fee.

In the Mantashe/Sunday World case, journalists, allegedly, were paid not to run a story – how long before SA journalists take money to run a story? (Unless it has already happened.) Events like these further delegitimise a crucial institution that has been important in ensuring our democracy works. The opponents of a strong and independent media will always have a great day when stories like these are unearthed.

Of course, politicians and journalists can avoid these pitfalls – by not doing anything they don’t want splashed on the front page of a Sunday newspaper. DM


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