South Africa

ANALYSIS

The man, his role & his future: David Makhura at the crossroads that may go all the way to the Top Six

The man, his role & his future: David Makhura at the crossroads that may go all the way to the Top Six
Outgoing Gauteng premier David Makhura. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sharon Seretlo)

As the Premier of Gauteng, David Makhura, prepares to ‘hand over’ power to his successor, it may be important to assess his time as leader of the country’s richest and most populous province. It is unlikely that this is his last big job. It’s early to make predictions, but he may find himself spending much more time in Luthuli House in the future.

Through David Makhura’s time in Gauteng perhaps one important dynamic has emerged: while the ANC has lost support in the province, and while there have been several important corruption scandals, none of this appears to have hurt him personally. This shows that he is either resistant to corruption himself or that he is able to manage political situations very carefully, or possibly both. 

This ability to steer clear of the mud in which the entire organisation regularly finds itself will be an important quality if he indeed finds himself one of the ANC’s Top Six national officials in December.

For those who have reported on Makhura for a long time, and before he became Gauteng premier, what made him stand out was his sheer personality, his friendliness, his lack of interest in titles and what appears to be a genuine interest in people. 

This reporter has commented on these qualities before, about how Makhura enjoys a laugh and a joke, and prefers to be called by his first name.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about Makhura is that he was the provincial secretary of the ANC in Gauteng for more than a decade, beginning at a time of serious internal divisions in the party. Somehow, despite being relatively young at the time, he was able to play a role in keeping the party together.

Together with Paul Mashatile, by the time Jacob Zuma became President, they were able to stand firm against the tsunami.

First, Zuma tried to get Nomvula Mokonyane elected as Gauteng leader in 2010. Then Mashatile was prevented from being elected as premier by the ANC’s National Executive Committee (NEC) and forced into the exile better known as deputy minister of arts and culture.

Still, Mashatile and Makhura prevailed.

In 2012, the Gauteng ANC was the only province to resist Zuma and support Kgalema Motlanthe’s slightly quixotic bid to become ANC leader at Mangaung. 

(At the time, it appeared Motlanthe was running a deliberately half-hearted campaign. Five years later, in 2017, it appeared as if this could have been about Motlanthe preparing the ground for President Cyril Ramaphosa all along).

The importance of this cannot be underestimated — without Makhura and Mashatile working together, the Gauteng ANC may not have withstood the pressure.

In 2014, when the NEC sat down to select provincial premiers after the elections, there was a strong move to deny Makhura the Gauteng premiership. The Gauteng ANC was determined. So intense was the contestation that The Star newspaper, controlled by Dr Iqbal Survé, actually published a front-page headline claiming that Ntombi Mekgwe was going to take the post.

As we noted at the time, “President Jacob Zuma is unlikely to have wanted Makhura as a premier. Makhura is simply too close to Mashatile and thus not someone to be trusted.” 

It was an important victory, one which showed the political astuteness of both Makhura and Mashatile.

Already, the Gauteng ANC was under pressure electorally. And, as the Zuma years wore on, the pressure intensified.

In 2016, the ANC lost control of the three metros and the party was becoming intensely divided.

During this time, Makhura kept a relatively low profile. He gave a few interviews but never tried to steal the limelight. Mashatile was still the provincial leader and it was he who went to speak at events aimed at removing Zuma from power.

Life Esidimeni scandal

Perhaps the worst scandal in the history of the Gauteng provincial government was about to break, however.

Even now the full truth about the Life Esidimeni scandal has not been told. Despite several processes and an inquest which is currently under way, it has not been properly explained why the Department of Health suddenly decided to remove mentally ill patients from the Life Esidimeni facility.

And how it was that they were literally forced into unlicensed NGOs, so often to die, scared, hungry and alone.

Makhura acted quickly. He met with the families of those who died, as he later put it, to “walk the whole journey” with them.

And action there was. The then Gauteng Health MEC, Qedani Mahlangu, resigned. Immediately.

It is important to remember how rare this was. She was among the first to ever resign from national or provincial government because of something that happened on her watch.

Then, in a masterstroke, Makhura asked former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke to chair a mediation panel. This allowed the families to speak and provided an open forum for everyone to hear what had happened.

I remember a few weeks later, in a radio studio, bumping into a person who was a Gauteng MEC in an uninvolved portfolio. When I asked her how she was, she replied with a look of shame, muttering words to the effect that she was still trying to deal with the horror of it.

A lot has happened since then and justice is still elusive. Mahlangu has not been criminally charged, yet.

But, despite being premier at the time, Makhura himself appeared to emerge almost unscathed.

This was a trick he was to pull again, just a few years later, when dealing with another scandal which has almost defined the state’s response to the pandemic.


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PPE scandal

In 2020, as we went into the pandemic hard lockdown, the hunt was on for personal protective equipment (PPE). It emerged that a close family friend of the then Health MEC, Dr Bandile Masuku, had won a contract to provide it to the Gauteng Department of Health.

The friend’s name was Thandisizwe Diko and he was chief of the AmaBhaca. His wife was the Presidential spokesperson, Khusela Diko. They were both close to Masuku and his wife, the ANC’s Joburg councillor Loyiso Masuku.

In the ensuing scandal, Khusela Diko had to go on long leave. After a long period of indecision, Bandile Masuku was eventually fired. Thandisizwe Diko died.

This became one of the defining scandals of the Covid-19 era, the one that was referred to time and time again. The facts of the story, a group of politically connected people in a position to benefit during a pandemic, were devastating.

Once again, Makhura was able to avoid public blame.

In the meantime, as the pandemic struck, he delivered regular press conferences, spelling out the situation in his province, and the attempts to stop the spread of the disease.

One of the more interesting things he did was to allow the establishment of a Gauteng Advisory Committee on Covid-19. Among its members was Professor Bruce Mellado, a scientist of international repute (he worked with the team that discovered the Higgs boson particle, and is currently the chair of the Institutional Board of the Tile Calorimeter of the Atlas experiment at Cern — in short, he’s unlocking the secrets of the universe). Mellado was happy to give regular interviews with his predictions, all of which were on the money.

This demonstrated transparency, as it was clear the scientists in Gauteng were happy to talk publicly. And this led to much more rational decision-making.

When the hard lockdown lifted, it appeared that Makhura was trying hard to ensure that Gauteng’s economy received as much support as it could, making the case for the economy to remain open.

He may also have been one of those people who during the pandemic were able to benefit by simply being in power. As Gareth van Onselen noted, during the harder lockdowns, only those with real political power were able to assert themselves. In practice, this meant ANC figures and in the Western Cape, those from the DA. Otherwise, virtually all other politicians had to remain silent.

While all of this was happening, and from the start of Makhura’s term as premier in 2014, the ANC’s fortunes in the province continued to sink.

In 2019, the party was barely able to cling to power through the mathematical seat calculations in the Gauteng Provincial Legislature.

In the local elections last year, the party received only 36.06% of the vote. Makhura will surely be the last-ever ANC premier in Gauteng able to govern without a coalition partner.

And yet, it would probably be wrong to blame him for this.

Sure, the scandals made things worse, but the history of our democratic politics shows that those in the cities are more likely to stop voting for the ANC first, and thus the urban nature of Gauteng has simply asserted itself.

But he has also had to confront problems in his own provincial party.

At one point last year, he told provincial ANC leaders that their infighting would lead to the party’s collapse. During the conference of the Ekurhuleni region, the divisions were so bad he likened them to a “war zone”.

For him, it must be a reminder of what happened in this province in the bad days, just as he was taking over as provincial secretary so long ago.

The future?

While Makhura may be leaving office, there is some speculation that his future may be even brighter than his recent past.

There are very few people in the ANC to whom no personal scandal has attached. Corruption could well be the defining issue of the 2024 elections. The ANC needs credible people. And Makhura has vast experience in dealing with different factions.

This may make him a suitable candidate for the position of ANC secretary-general.

If the last five years have taught the ANC anything, it’s the vital importance of the person in that position. His supporters would certainly argue he has the experience and the ability.

And it may be difficult to find anyone else in the party who would be acceptable to the different factions.

If this outcome does happen, it may suddenly make the position of deputy leader of the ANC very interesting as well. If Mashatile does win that post, that would be a huge victory for Gauteng. It would probably give the province more influence than at any time in its history.

For fans of Makhura, that would be a fitting victory for someone who has played the long game. For his critics, it would be proof that even a failure to win votes in Gauteng is not enough to deny someone a top job in the ANC. DM

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