Deputy President David Mabuza speaks softly these days, and not very often. As someone who may be thought of as a person with ambition, and being next (constitutionally speaking) in line for the presidency, this makes his future plans difficult to pinpoint. His tendency to obscure most about himself will lead to ever-increasing questions about his loyalties, fitness to serve and a longer-term agenda. His behaviour so far has not been unlike several other deputy presidents before him, though. The moment he changes tack, should it ever come, will be very important.
Being a deputy president in our system can be a slightly unhappy position. You are appointed by the person who won the last ANC conference, and are usually seen as a threat by that same person. Usually the duties that are not exactly fun, and away from the cameras, are assigned to the Number Twos: Jacob Zuma put Cyril Ramaphosa in charge of fixing Eskom, e-tolls and Lesotho; Thabo Mbeki put Zuma in charge of the Moral Regeneration Movement, which looked to many as something between a vicious joke and downright cruelty. And while everything you say is watched for signs of future ambition, doing nothing in the post would be a waste of time and political power.
In Mabuza’s case, things are even more scrambled for two significant reasons.
The first is that he spoke in public hardly at all even when he was the premier of Mpumalanga and ran the province like a personal fiefdom, while his enemies have spoken many times, airing loud corruption claims against the future SA deputy president. As most of his moves have been behind closed doors, it is difficult to gain a first-hand understanding of his actions and beliefs, if any.
And then there are the persistent rumours of Mabuza being seriously ill.
On Monday he attempted to refute these rumours. “I took ill for a month, merely because of my health condition. I was in the good hands of the doctors in the country. So I came back, my health situation, it’s improving, so I’m grateful that I survived. Some of our people were circulating information that I’m dead, well I’m still alive. It was a very difficult situation of course … if you’re ill, it’s not an easy situation.”
He said nothing more about his health, which opens the door to speculation. The nature of his “condition” is not known. But he has said in the past that he was poisoned, and had received treatment in Russia for that. Many will assume that this incident is linked to that. And, as he is surely receiving the best medical treatment available in South Africa, that means that he is suffering from a serious malady.
This will always raise doubts about whether he really has ambitions for the top job. Fairly or unfairly, it will be used against him by his enemies, who will ask if it is right to elect someone who is not healthy enough to do what needs to be done.
One of the more fundamental questions about Mabuza is the question of where he really stands: does he back the campaign by Ramaphosa to “clean up” the ANC, or not, and is this just a manoeuvre to get himself into the top position?
Here, his own history and claims against him from his time in Mpumalanga (which once featured on the front page of The New York Times) lead to cynicism about his suitability as an enthusiastic supporter of any move aimed at stopping or preventing corruption.
Certainly, by his own account, during Monday’s ANC briefing, Mabuza is very much behind Ramaphosa. He summed up the situation thus:
“From where I’m sitting, I can say the ANC did well from Nasrec, to date. Of course, you will realise that in between we take some few steps forwards and at some times we take a few steps backwards.
“But overall I think the president has led the ANC very well to date, given all the challenges we had pre-Nasrec and after Nasrec. And I must commend the officials for really sticking together under really difficult conditions, um, well at times I can see it’s difficult. It was all influenced by our environment, I can tell you that the media was not very helpful…”
(It is ALWAYS the media’s fault, of course – Ed.)
What may well be key in his comments is his stated strong support for Ramaphosa. He surely sees that the president is important for the public image of the ANC, and that without him, the party could find itself in a difficult position. His support also suggests that he would not endorse any move against Ramaphosa.
(Stephen, you do know that history is full of people who were able to stab a leader in the back, but only because they were right behind them at the time – Ed.)
But Mabuza’s comment about how he must “commend the officials for really sticking together” is fascinating.
It is not necessarily true that the top officials have stuck together. At least three times the officials have appeared to openly differ from Secretary-General Ace Magashule. The first was Magashule’s truly puzzling interpretation of an NEC statement around “quantity easing”, the second was when he issued a statement condemning the publication of the book about him, Gangster State by Daily Maverick’s own Pieter-Louis Myburgh. The third instance was Magashule’s statement, issued on the ANC letterhead, that Derek Hanekom was a “wedge-driver”, which was later dialled back by the ANC officials.
All of this has happened in less than three years. To suggest then that they have “stuck together” certainly looks disingenuous. But no more than so many other political comments we have seen in recent times.
Mabuza also said on Monday afternoon:
“And I’m sure that the president is very helpful, we’re grateful that he’s doing everything in his power to really unite the organisation. Of course, assisted by the officials, and I’m sure, down the line, we are going to win this one, though difficult.
“It’s difficult, but we are going to win it, it’s our mission, and I think we are equal to the mission.”
Again, Mabuza appears to be saying, within the haze of generic terms, that he is fully behind Ramaphosa.
And then again, on Thursday, while taking questions in a Zoom session of the National Council of Provinces, Mabuza was asked about corruption.
He immediately put himself behind Ramaphosa, saying, “money was misappropriated, the president has spoken about this … we need to build very strong institutions, we need to support the NPA, all your law enforcement institutions”.
And then, in a stronger vein, he said, “And it’s quite clear that since the advent of democracy we have seen this element of corruption growing. And this probably presents an opportunity for us to take time and strengthen these institutions so that we deal decisively with corruption. Otherwise, corruption can destroy all the gains we have made as a country and as a nation.”
These are strong comments, and exactly what watching voters may want to hear. Certainly, one can imagine Ramaphosa nodding along as the comments were made.
All of this points to perhaps Mabuza’s main political problem. For him to succeed to the top job, he needs the ANC to be a functioning political entity. In other words, he needs the party to still be united (in so far as that is possible), and not split further.
At the same time, he no longer enjoys the complete control of the ANC in Mpumalanga that he used to have, simply because he is no longer there full-time.
This may mean he needs the divisions of Nasrec to keep healing, and to find a way to remove the current tensions, and to stay in office in the meantime. And for the moment he appears to believe that the best route to this is through Ramaphosa’s continued presidency.
At the same time, he might actually be weaker than he was previously. His power (the source of which was only his willingness to betray the “Premier League” and that the branches he controlled at Nasrec made up the difference between the factions) is possibly ebbing slightly. The pre-Nasrec factions are not as well-defined as they used to be, and certainly the “RET” faction appears to be on the back foot.
For the moment then, Mabuza’s safest option is to be a loyal and public supporter of Ramaphosa.
This has happened before. Zuma supported Mbeki and Ramaphosa was fulsome in his praise of Zuma, although he no longer reads his letters. In these relationships, the key moment was when the deputy opposed the president for the first time. For Zuma, this moment was his refusal to resign as the ANC deputy president after the Shaik trial in 2005. For Ramaphosa, it was probably the moment that he offered his political and personal support to the then finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, in 2016.
The key indicator to watch for then is any public suggestion that Mabuza is no longer fully behind Ramaphosa on any issue. That would be a sign of shifting winds.
And while that might be a long time in the future, “The Cat” may believe he still has several lives in which to wait. DM
Adolf Hitler was the first European leader to ban human zoos.
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