ANALYSIS

Gwede Mantashe’s unforced errors & dangerous moves

By Stephen Grootes 5 November 2019
Caption
Photo: ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe holds a news conference in Johannesburg on Monday (Greg Nicolson)

The energy minister has failed to take the urgent action that SA’s electricity and climate crisis needs, and has dealt inappropriately with the newspapers reporting on his own scandal. His personal mistakes can ultimately cost his party, and his country, dearly.

Last week, the ANC chair and Minister of Energy and Mineral Resources, Gwede Mantashe, told leaders from the SA National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) that he was “retracting” a claim he had made about two journalists. He now says he did not give the reporters R70,000 to make a story, involving a younger woman, go away.

Mantashe, no doubt, hopes this will be the end of the story. But the events, his behaviour, and the choices that he made here must surely lead to important questions about him and his conduct. This incident, while distinctly unsavoury, concerns his personal conduct and morals. Mantashe’s lack of proper action in relation to our electricity crisis may cost South Africa dearly in the not-so-distant future.

In many ways, as has been said before here, the history of the Zuma era was the history of the Mantashe era. As secretary-general of the ANC since the party’s 2007 Polokwane Conference until 2017 Nasrec Conference, he was the centre of gravity for most of our politics.

For many, his close association with then-president Jacob Zuma came to define him. It was Mantashe who had to defend Nkandla, it was he who had to bat away the claims of corruption against Zuma (and, in the process, claiming judges were “counter-revolutionary”), it was he who chose to allow/enable Zuma to stay in office.

But it was also Mantashe who started to work against Zuma at a crucial time. Mantashe, more than anyone else, created the architecture of the ANC’s leadership election system that stopped Zuma from manipulating the process. It is often forgotten how unlikely it was that Ramaphosa won a multibillion-dollar patronage election against an incumbent. In large part, that happened thanks to Mantashe.

And of course, his position as ANC chair is hugely important to Ramaphosa. He appears to be the one person in the ANC’s top six national officials who will back the president no matter what. This matters, because Secretary-General Ace Magashule is still a potent enemy of Ramaphosa. With Deputy President David Mabuza and Treasurer Paul Mashatile appearing to be politically aligned, Ramaphosa’s partnership with Mantashe is key to his grip over the ANC’s Top Six.

This makes it unlikely that Ramaphosa will remove him from his government post. That said, Mantashe’s recent behaviour has appeared very out of character.

If there was one thing that marked Mantashe’s interactions with journalists during his time as ANC secretary-general, it was that he was happy to answer questions. While he could sometimes be intimidating (even coming very, very close, and sometimes crossing the line to bullying…), he gave the impression of being a democrat.

This stands in strong contrast to his reaction to being asked questions by SABC journalists last week about the claim that he had a relationship with a much younger woman. There he was quoted as saying that he accounts to Ramaphosa, and not to the SABC.

He told Sanef that he was retracting his claims against the Sunday World journalists, because “they had no basis”. This is very serious. He is not merely “retracting” his statements, he is surely admitting that he lied. And that he lied in a way that damaged journalism and the media.

From a political point of view, what is more concerning is that he did something that created a situation in which he was desperate to hide certain information. This surely means that he is capable of reckless behaviour and, potentially, a counter-intelligence threat. Considering how complicated and rough SA politics is at the moment, this is difficult to comprehend. It is well known that information is used as a weapon, either on the front pages of newspapers or through WhatsApp groups. Knowing this, for him to engage in this behaviour is foolish.

Unfortunately for Mantashe, there are other issues in the energy policy arena that also lead to questions.

If you hadn’t noticed, South Africa needs more electricity. Urgently. You would expect that the minister of energy would be front and centre of government’s efforts to deal with this crisis.

Instead, Mantashe has been almost invisible. Last week, in Parliament, he gave the impression that he was not in a hurry at all. He also said that renewable energies would not be given preference over other forms of energy.

On both of these issues, important questions need to be asked.

There is absolutely no justification for Mantashe to drag his feet on starting the new power-generation bid process. If there is some looming issue that supersedes the current power crisis he has a duty to tell us.

Then there is his stance on the energy sources. Considering the damage that coal does, it is difficult to promote, or even defend, the continuous use of it. As a country blessed with strong winds and abundant solar energy, the case for coal is weak, especially when renewable energy is cheaper than coal. The case against coal is so strong that it appears the vast majority of financial institutions around the world will no longer finance it.

Yet, despite this, Mantashe appears to be almost deliberately ignoring the case for renewables.

The immediate suspicion is that he is simply staying true to his roots, which lie with his time at the National Union of Mineworkers. But it is still incredible that he may be deliberately closing his eyes to the havoc that the climate crisis will wreak and the obvious value of championing renewable energy.

And that he may even be making things worse by refusing to move quickly to resolve the biggest threat South Africa faces.

Mantashe is a man of formidable political talents; he knows and understands his organisation better than possibly anyone. It is unlikely for the moment that any action will be taken against him, simply because of the positions he holds and the current politics.

But his recent conduct may have lost him something that is both intangible and politically important: the respect of those who used to hold him in high esteem. DM

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