Episode 6: Gwede Mantashe’s island of angels

Episode 6: Gwede Mantashe’s island of angels

In December 2022, the 55th — and possibly last — elective conference of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress will take place against a backdrop of socio-political chaos. In the limited audio documentary series, The Highwaymen, investigative journalists Richard Poplak and Diana Neille take a road trip across South Africa in search of answers to how the country got to this breaking point, and how the lives and careers of three senior ANC figures — Ace Magashule, Gwede Mantashe and Dr Zweli Mkhize — may be representative of the rise and stumble of our once vaunted democratic project and, by extension, liberal democracies everywhere.

In this episode, the investigation swerves into South Africa’s Eastern Cape province — home of Struggle heroes like Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki and the Sisulus. But here the focus is on one of the most powerful politicians of the democratic era — Gwede Mantashe, long-time ANC boss and current Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy. As we delve into Mantashe’s life, we learn about his history in organised labour, and the role unions played in bringing down apartheid. But as the democratic age deepened, organised labour became embedded in the ANC, and Mantashe became the company man — a genial version of a mob boss.

Listen to the podcast here.

Richard Poplak: To be on the road in South Africa in 2022 is to become a connoisseur of burned-out or besieged government buildings.

News clip: The raging flames rose high above the rooftops of Cape Town. A plume of billowing smoke, visible from across the city. 

Minister of Public Works and Infrastructure, Patricia de Lille: This is a very sad day for our democracy, because Parliament is the home of our democracy. 

Richard Poplak: As the new year dawned on January 2, 2022, hungover South Africans woke up to the news that their Parliament was on fire. And then, the country kept burning.

News clip: The South African National Defence Force says that investigations will continue this morning to determine what could have caused the fire at the Waterkloof Airforce Base in Pretoria. 

News clip: Police fired a warning shot this morning to force a 36-year-old man to desist from breaking the windows of the Constitutional Court in Braamfontein with a hammer.

News clip: We understand that there was another government building which came under attack… We understand there was a fire there…

News clip: The South African Police Service are currently conducting a case of arson.

News clip: It looks like burning government buildings is becoming a trend in the country. 

News clip: The historic Komani Town Hall in the Eastern Cape has gone up in flames… This is the fourth municipal building that’s been set alight in two years. 

Diana Neille: So we just stopped for petrol at the Komani Shell, and happened to see the headline from Monday, January 31, 2022 in the Daily Dispatch. 

Richard Poplak: [Ja] the town hall is completely gutted. Everything inside the building was destroyed. To my eye, nothing would’ve survived that conflagration.

Diana Neille: Very disturbing that all four buildings that have been gutted by fire in recent months… contained valuable and sensitive municipal records, including records of foul play and maladministration of the highest order. Sounds familiar.

Richard Poplak: Ja, this is happening all over the country… It’s straight out of the playbook, if those allegations stand. 

While the riots of July 2021 occupy a great deal of space in our national consciousness, there’s long been an epidemic of burning in this country. 

Important stuff is burned for a range of reasons — labour issues, unemployment, corruption, education, electricity, housing, land, municipal services, vigilantism, xenophobia, elections, party political and political attacks. And sometimes just for the sheer fun of it.

It’s enough to make one paranoid about the connections and links and masterminds and svengalis. The truth, though, is that it’s all just pure chaos.

And then the phone rings late at night.

Ja, how can I help?

Perhaps clarity waits at the other end of the line?

But then this voice growls down the phone.

Gwede Mantashe: This man called Styles… in an article, it was about potholes….He says these potholes look like Gwede Mantashe’s lips.

Richard Poplak: Uh, pard… Who said that?

Gwede Mantashe: Ag! Styles. The author of the article is Styles. 

Richard Poplak: Ok, he said they look like Gwede… Ok. 

Gwede Mantashe: In the Daily Maverick.  Now, I don’t mind being criticised, Richard, okay?… But insults are not criticism. They reflect hatred.

Richard Poplak: That’s Gwede Samson Mantashe, one of South Africa’s most powerful politicians of the past several decades. He served for 10 years as Secretary-General of the ANC, and he is now the Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy.

And this is one of Mantashe’s signature power moves: He calls journalists when they’re either half asleep, or in a rush to file before a late deadline.

And then he berates them.

In this case, Mantashe is incensed by a satirical article that ran in Daily Maverick. The piece compared his lips to the potholes that feature prominently on the roads of the Eastern Cape, Mantashe’s spectacularly impoverished home province.

But when the ANC’s gruff uncle Gweezy rings, there’s usually something else going on.

A secondary move behind the initial parry.

Now is probably a good time to revisit our seven-point democratic breakdown continuum that we introduced in episode one. As a reminder. It goes like this: ideological contestation leads to divisions, which result in factions, which create corruption — or elite capture — which leads to state capture, which atomises into organised crime, which results in all-out gang warfare.

Mantashe’s story details the short leap from elite capture to organised crime —  the penultimate point on that continuum.

Mantashe is a keystone, but he is also the key that unlocks how postmodern democracy functions and fails.

Listen to the podcast here.

Diana Neille: Give Gwede Mantashe this much: He’s a serial engager, even if he doesn’t end up saying much of substance. 

Gwede Mantashe: You’re going to see that we have a few examples that I’m going to give you, where we always pretend to be an island of angels, but drifting to poverty. We like that as a country…

Diana Neille: But although he’s been one of the most prominent figures in South African palace politics for the past 15 years, few people really seem to know who Gwede Mantashe is, or are even aware of his history.

Not our colleague Estelle Ellis, who reports on the Eastern Cape, Mantashe’s home province.

Richard Poplak: Do you know much about Gwede?

Estelle Ellis: People seem to be scared of Gwede.

Diana Neille: Not opposition politician Bantu Holomisa, who has spent his entire life working in politics in the Eastern Cape.

Bantu Holomisa: Gwede Mantashe — I don’t know him that much, because at the time I was active in the ANC, he was more… on the labour side; that is, in the mines and so on.

Diana Neille: Not even long-term political insider and struggle stalwart Protas Madlala can say much about him.

Protas Madlala: I don’t know him, except at a distance… I used to enjoy his reports.

Richard Poplak: Well, how do you feel about Gwede Mantashe now?

Protas Madlala: The Minister of Energies? Ah no, he’s a disaster.

Diana Neille: The rare exception to this rule is author and Daily Maverick Associate Editor, Ferial Haffajee, who has known Mantashe from his days as a labour power broker, back in the early ’90s.

Ferial Haffajee: I really dig Gwede Mantashe. I’ve covered him as an NUM General Secretary; I’ve covered all his years as the ANC Secretary-General, and I’ve covered him as a Cabinet minister now. And why have I always appreciated him? Because Gwede is not somebody who’s shy to pick up the phone and engage you and debate you into the ground.

Diana Neille: No kidding.

Ferial Haffajee: My experience of him has been as a kind human being and a very personable person, and I have been quite alarmed to see the transmogrification of Gwede Mantashe into a person who I almost don’t recognise these days.

Richard Poplak: Yeah, that makes three of us. But we’ll get to that in a little bit.

Mantashe was born in a small village in the Eastern Cape, called Lower Cala, in a region that is famous for producing more than its fair share of ANC stalwarts.

Here’s Bantu Holomisa again.

Bantu Holomisa: The Eastern Cape itself has always been regarded as a home for the people who led the struggle. I’m talking about, from the Chris Hanis, Winnie Mandelas, Mr Mandela, Sisulus, Mbekis, all those household names.

Archive news clip: South Africa’s Eastern Cape coast is one of the most treacherous coastlines in the world.

Richard Poplak: If this were a travel podcast, we’d be rhapsodising about the diversity of the Eastern Cape’s landscape — the astonishing drive from the Drakensberg down to the rivers of the Wild Coast, through what seems like 12 different biospheres and about 15 different action man activities — hiking, parasailing, mountain climbing, you name it.

Tragically, this is a political podcast. And the Eastern Cape is a mess. Our colleague Estelle Ellis has reported here for years, and it’s never good news.

Estelle Ellis: I think a lot of things have stayed the same, even though, every four years, they claim that they are now changing… We always say this has been… I think first it was the home of champions, and then the Eastern Cape became the home of legends… But the point is, it’s still the home of extremely poor people, with very little access to healthcare, to water, to food. Some of the poorest communities in South Africa live in the Eastern Cape, and it doesn’t matter how many times the tagline changes, the most vulnerable remained vulnerable.

Richard Poplak: During apartheid, two bantustans, Ciskei and Transkei, constituted the bulk of the eastern part of what is now the Eastern Cape. 

Following the discoveries of diamonds and gold in the latter part of the 19th century, the, er, coloniser and mining magnate, Cecil John Rhodes, passed the Glen Grey Act in the Cape Colony in 1894.

The act assigned an area for exclusively African development, serving to enforce segregation of Africans, further disenfranchising them and controlling their economic options.

The Glen Grey Act outlawed local systems of land allocation in the British-occupied territories and set up the first Cape “native reserves” — Ciskei and Transkei — which were to become the template for the 1913 Land Act and for the resulting Bantustans, or homelands, more than 50 years later.

Apartheid’s economic policies split families, creating an enduring social crisis: In the drive to feed apartheid industry, the mines needed miners. The state supported the mining industry through the provision of infrastructure to the mines, and by introducing and enforcing a legislative framework that ensured a cheap, racialised labour supply to the mines.

In turn, the revenue from the mining industry funded the racialised apartheid society to the benefit of white South Africans. Black men left their families for months and years on end, living in squalid hostels and townships on the edges of urban areas in the north.

Archive news clip: The golden city: South Africa’s Johannesburg. Seventy years have brought a small township to rank with the world’s richest cities, and it’s still growing fast. A centre of gold mining, of industry and commerce, Johannesburg creates enormous wealth. 

Diana Neille: Mining is so woven into the economic fabric of the region that it’s easy to think of South Africa as one big 1.2 million square kilometre mine pit. Given the cruelty and exploitation of the South African mining system, organising that labour — fighting for mineworkers’ basic human rights — became crucial to undermining apartheid.

In 1941, a national union federation was formed, called the Council of Non-European Trade Unions. During the Second World War, it became a collective of 119 trade unions, and by 1945, it had a combined membership of 158,000 Black workers. In the same year, the African Mine Workers Union was also formed.

Then came one of South Africa’s game-changing strikes: In 1946, 60,000 workers downed tools. When the smoke cleared, 12 people had been killed by police. The unrest helped undermine trust in then-president Jan Smuts and his Union Party.

Two years later, the National Party won power, apartheid became official policy, and mining — especially gold mining — would go on to pay for pretty much all of it. Gwede Mantashe was one of those mine labourers who was footing the bill.

Gwede Mantashe: I’m a coal miner, others call me a coal fundamentalist… Actually, I spent more years mining copper than mining coal, but nobody calls me a copper fundamentalist. If you add… some months in gold, where I was fired after six months by Anglo American in Western Deep Level 10, then the period is bigger, outside of coal.

Diana Neille: After joining the Christian Student Movement as a teenager, Mantashe began working on the mines of the Witwatersand, Johannesburg’s vast gold reef. At 20 years old, he became the recreation officer at Western Deep Levels gold mine in Carletonville for a few months, before moving on to Prieska Copper Mine later in 1982.

News clip:  Millions of pounds worth of gold comes out of Joburg each year… Mines like this one at Blyvooruitzicht make South Africa one of the largest gold-producing countries in the world. In fact, two thirds of the west’s gold come from these fields.

Diana Neille: In 1982, Mantashe joined the new National Union of Mineworkers (NUM)… the first union to sign the Freedom Charter. NUM was founded by high-end pet enthusiast Cyril Ramaphosa, who became the first General Secretary.

Under Ramaphosa’s leadership, the membership of the NUM grew from 6,000 to 300,000. He then helped establish the Congress of South African Trade Unions, or Cosatu, in 1985. His profile grew accordingly: Ramaphosa was put in charge of coordinating the release of the Rivonia trialists, most of whom were freed in October 1989. He also oversaw the release of Nelson Mandela in February 1990. 

Ramaphosa was elected ANC Secretary-General in 1991. He headed the ANC negotiating team with the National Party during Codesa and the Multiparty Negotiating Forum. He then chaired the Constitutional Assembly which drafted the first democratic Constitution.

It’s not too much to say that the NUM made the new South Africa.

Surely, this was a beautiful moment for South Africa’s working class as the democratic era dawned? Eh, not so much.

Here’s Ferial Haffajee again.

Ferial Haffajee: In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the trade unions were really the key form of political organisations, and without them, the ANC wouldn’t have been able to root back, because it was through those branch structures which gave it almost a natural leadership core. And there was contestation in Cosatu whether it should ally with the ANC — because there were many people who came from different political traditions. But eventually it was decided, with the SACP, because of Joe Slovo, largely, that they would form this Tripartite Alliance. And that’s given a political identity to South Africa, for all of its democratic history, that samoosa or triangle of power. So it’s the fundamental building block to understand the ANC in power, is to understand that Tripartite Alliance.

Richard Poplak: Not all senior ANC politicians liked what those blocks were building, though… Here’s former trade unionist-turned-policy specialist, Neil Coleman.

Neil Coleman: Thabo Mbeki, I think, is at the root of what unfolds over the next 26, 27 years… Because he regarded the internal movement and the mass forces which underpinned that, as being naive, as being ultra-militant, as misunderstanding… the international economic situation, and what was possible in South Africa.

[He] regarded the internal Mass Democratic Movement and the sort of revolutionary situation in the country as being a threat to some type of moderate inclusive settlement, which promoted a black middle class, which promoted an accord between elite black economic interests with domestic business, and allowed for a reconfiguration of economic relationships in South Africa. 

He deliberately fashioned a trajectory, a path… in accord with big business in South Africa, which excluded the labour movement, which excluded the mass democratic forces.

Richard Poplak: Labour leaders in the new ANC dispensation were given prominent posts in government, with Mandela seeming to believe that they would balance out the more conservative forces in his Cabinet, most notably Mbeki.

Well, they didn’t.

Jay Naidoo, a former General Secretary of Cosatu, has often described this deal in no uncertain terms as “a mistake”.

Jay Naidoo: Cosatu has very serious challenges. You know, it is seen increasingly by workers as a conveyor belt of those that are in political power. You have a situation where 350,000 members of the Metalworkers Union can be expelled from an organisation — that would’ve never happened in our time.

Richard Poplak: Unsurprisingly, the global context had a massive impact on how South African history would unfold. Across Western democracies, with only a few exceptions, the rising neoliberal order signalled an end of the class war detente that had uplifted the Western working class. 

Without the spectre of communism, there was no longer any need to pander to labour — union membership began to plummet, as did the security of working-class jobs. 

For a decade at least, before the labour-busting tenures of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, there was a resumption of unrelenting anti-union propaganda campaigns. And by the 1990s, that propaganda had basically become the global consensus.

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: I think that the honourable gentleman knows that I have the same contempt for his socialist policies as the people of East Europe who have experienced it have it for theirs… I think I must have hit the right nail on the head when I pointed out that… they’d rather have the poor poorer… You do not create wealth and opportunity that way. You do not create a property owning democracy that way. 

Richard Poplak: Compounding matters, in South Africa, as elsewhere, some unions became rent-seeking syndicates in their own right, bleeding sectors like education and the civil service dry.

Here’s Heinrich Böhmke, a former trade unionist and the current head of the Specialised Skills Institute of South Africa.

Heinrich Böhmke: In the ’70s and the ’80s and early ’90s… you had a bunch of true believers, for whom trade unionism was a noble task that they performed nobly. And there were real advances that were made.

There are a number of things, however, that have broken that open… Public sector unions… have their own logic, they have to stay close to the government, in obsequious ways, but also in a sort of racketeering way. They have to constantly flex their muscles in certain ways, and when they no longer have a muscle to flex, they then make all these side deals, and those side deals start with investment companies that are a thing.

It’s so easy for questions like this to be labelled as right wing, or conservative, or union bashing. And a lot of people in the sort of broader left, and the academic sphere, have, for years and years, paid obeisance to these ideas, as if, ja, no, labour and labour aristocracy, these words are terrible, they’re Thatcherite words, they shouldn’t be mentioned. But we all understand, deep down, that they are true.

Richard Poplak: The co-opting of labour into the ANC was part of a global tragedy, not just because it meant the end of a coherent left in Africa’s most sophisticated economy, but because a number of its leaders would function as double agents, gutting out labour’s progressive power while going on to assist Mbeki in shaping a harder-edged conservative political programme.

And Mantashe was very much among them.

Neil Coleman: And of course, what happened, is now on record, is that you saw a deterioration of the conditions of the vast majority of the South African population. The notion of a prosperous black middle class, that would filter down to ordinary people, was a chimaera — never materialised, and instead led to a corrupt elite — a double corrupt elite. The one was the [B-B]BEE elite, and the other was the elite which was feeding off the trough of state tenders, of various state institutions, of state-owned enterprises, etc, etc. 

Diana Neille: About that elite? Mantashe’s first stint in government began when was elected a councillor in Ekurhuleni Municipality. He remained active in the union movement, but then he was appointed to the board of the listed company, Samancor, a massive chrome and ore smelter, in 1995.

Corporate video: Samancor Chrome is the largest diversified chrome mining company in the world, in terms of our resource base.

He was the first union boss to be appointed to a board position in South Africa, rocketing up the ranks in NUM, as well as the SACP. 

Here’s Ferial Haffajee again, describing business’s logic behind these appointments.

Ferial Haffajee: It was all part of the macro picture — remember where the world was at this time —  the greatest fear was that the ANC would impose a collectivist economy, a communist economy, nationalise private property, and also nationalise the mines. 

So if you wanted labour peace, and if you wanted a less adversarial relationship, you had to either co-govern — co-determine — or otherwise co-opt labour. And so they began those first experiments of… Helping start the NUM’s investment company, helping to capitalise it, not only with the pension fund, but also through capital injections, and then pulling people like Gwede Mantashe on to boards, as worker voices, right at the top of boards. That’s like a German model of running business. 

Diana Neille: Perhaps inevitably, this created a revolving door between labour, business and government — a squishy ideological netherworld that would lead to immense compromise, mostly for the progressive left.

Richard Poplak: By the zeroes, the ANC, much like the universe, was in a state of constant expansion. Its patronage networks grew and deepened, it stretched across the entire South African state. As an institution of democracy — which is to say, a political party — it constantly needed money to feed its election machinery.

By 2007, Mantashe was elected the chairperson of the South African Communist Party. He was also appointed to a job at the Development Bank of Southern Africa around the same time. The latter was a font of cash washed mainly into mining companies that were thankful to the ANC for their continued good stewardship of the New South Africa.

Mantashe was becoming a money gyre, a swirling, hyperactive conduit flushing cash from grateful corporate donors and even more grateful recipients of the development bank, straight back into the hungry movement.

At the centre of this was Mantashe. But was he a commie? A suit? A shop steward? None of these distinctions had any meaning any more. In the journey from ideological contestation to division to factionalism and, then, to entrenched corruption, or elite capture, the squishy netherworld had produced its perfect fully automated replicant: Gwede Mantashe, the company man, was doing ANC company business, working every angle in service of the organisation.

Next, we show how this congealed into a programme of advanced state capture, and into a bloodier, noisier, less artful version of The Godfather.

The Godfather: You understand guns! Finance is a gun. Politics is knowing when to pull the trigger. DM

Editorial oversight and fact-checking by Sasha Wales-Smith.


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