The Highwaymen Episode 7: Lights Out
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.
Gwede Mantashe now presides over the most important portfolio in the Cabinet — mining and energy. He’s run it like a fiefdom, trying to shut down any real commitment to a green energy transition. We also explore how Mantashe aided and abetted State Capture, and the slow but sure creep toward a gangster state — and all-out gang warfare.
Listen to the podcast here.
Richard Poplak: State Capture. What a ride!
News Clip: Chief Justice Raymond Zondo has handed over part 4 of the State Capture Inquiry’s report. The topics covered in this latest instalment include the capture of Eskom; the attempted capture of the National Treasury; Gupta bank accounts and the Free State asbestos and housing scandals.
Richard Poplak: After the ANC’s Polokwane conference and the ascension of Zuma, the ANC’s elite capture project started to coalesce under the iron hand of one man — Msholozi. The Boss. Zuma began reformatting intelligence gathering, policing and state-owned enterprises as adjuncts of his syndicate working under the umbrella of the ANC.
His secretary-general in the ANC was, famously, Gwede Mantashe.
Our colleague Ferial Haffajee weighs in on how Mantashe helped manage this process.
Ferial Haffajee: Several people approached him at the height of capture… And they said to him, comrade, there are terrible things happening here. And I remember a time where he invited people to bring him evidence, and they did. They submitted documents to him, they had meetings with him, and he did absolutely nothing. So there was a duty to the whistle-blowers, and a political duty to the country, which I also think raises fundamental questions about his role in that period, and his role as a leader.
Richard Poplak: Leaving ethics and legality aside, as secretary-general, Mantashe was sublime. He danced between and over factions, keeping the congress coherent, managing the interpersonal wars and ensuring that the elite capture project didn’t overwhelm the party — at least not at first.
His press conferences doubled as stand-up comedy routines and he petted journalists like they were fat, tame cats. And he had a knack for saying nothing in a way that made for good copy.
While the ANC — like many political parties — had always been a vector for self-enrichment, Zuma began to refashion the entire state as a mechanism for extraction.
Mantashe provided the cover fire.
Listen to the podcast here.
Gwede Mantashe: Comrades, we belong together. And we must rebuild the ANC together. We must develop… the ANC together.
Ferial Haffajee: Gwede Mantashe’s political purpose was to protect the ANC, and the minutes of the ANC subpoenaed by the State Capture Commission and things he has said subsequently, shows that that is what drives Gwede Mantashe. The party comes first — protect the party. Keep things on the inside. No matter what its impact is on the country, and whose interests you say you govern, that didn’t happen. Party first.
Gwede Mantashe: We are going to see a very stable conference in Mangaung. You are not going to see the repeat of Polokwane. I’m putting my neck on a block on this one.
Diana Neille: At the 2012 elective conference, where Zuma ran all but uncontested, Mantashe’s old union pal, Cyril Ramaphosa — a billionaire much beloved by corporate South Africa — was brought in as the deputy president so that there would be the appearance of an adult in the room.
Cyril Ramaphosa: This appointment or election is something that I did not go seeking out. I was minding my own business.
Diana Neille: Meanwhile, the ANC’s new treasurer general was Zweli Mkhize, the KZN mega-boss himself. Ace Magashule was running the Free State, along with similarly minded premiers in other provinces — they would later become known as the Premier League. On paper, it was perfect — the Zuma faction of the ANC was in control.
But then, the late journalist Mandy Rossouw broke this story:
News Clip: South Africa’s Public Protector said on Wednesday that President Jacob Zuma benefited unduly from a $23-million state-funded security upgrade to his private home.
Diana Neille: In the lead-up to the publication of the Public Protector’s damning report on the upgrades made to the Zuma homestead in Nkandla, the ANC accused the office of leaking information to the media. The bombshell report dropped just before the 2014 national election, so Mantashe’s dancing had to get fancier.
Gwede Mantashe: That worries us… We get a debate going on, not based on the final report… We think that is a dangerous trend, from where we are sitting. This is, in our view, a deliberate and misleading casting of aspersions on those being investigated — in this instance, the president of the ANC.
Diana Neille: And then, in 2015, just as everyone was cracking their second beer of the December holidays, this news broke:
Jacob Zuma: I’ve decided to remove Mr Nhlanhla Nene as Minister of Finance.
Richard Poplak: At the alleged behest of the Gupta syndicate, Zuma replaced Nene with a poorly sewn hand puppet named Des van Rooyen, who could barely count, let alone run a finance ministry.
But still, Mantashe kept things from spilling out into complete chaos by forming a ruck that would install the internationally respected fake communist Pravin Gordhan in the Treasury.
Pravin Gordhan: The reason given for Mr Nene’s dismissal, that he was going to be assigned to a BRICS job — there was no such job.
Richard Poplak: Zuma’s fight for his political life — a brutal populist scuffle that cast him as the aggrieved party in all of this — took place as Brexit reshaped the United Kingdom into a chaos-generator, and Donald Trump’s victorious campaign removed the pine-scented air freshener from America’s far-right pit toilet.
The rolling back of liberal norms that had pertained for decades was happening across developing and developed world democracies — Zuma, who rose to power in 2009, was the canary down the mine, warning the planet of what was coming its way. He was Trump before Trump, Johnson pre-Johnson, Victor Orban with a better chuckle.
Jacob Zuma: Even if you tell them, the Nkandla report is being processed… Nkaaandla… Even if you are discussing very serious matters, a man stand[s] up: Point of order. Yes? Nkaaandla. Thixo wase George Koch!
Diana Neille: And then, in May 2017, Daily Maverick, amaBhungane and News24 broke this story, and everything broke along with it.
News Clip: More than 100,000 leaked, confidential emails and documents have been released in South Africa, by a group of investigative journalists. They allegedly back up suspicions that state contracts have been improperly awarded to allies and backers of President Jacob Zuma. Central to the emails is the powerful Gupta family, who have long been suspected of having undue influence in the government.
Diana Neille: When the Gupta Leaks flooded the media zone, it was clear that corruption had become entrenched in the South African governance system to such an extent that it WAS the system.
From big corporations to small businesses running illicit tenders, the collusion was staggering. McKinsey & company, Bain & Company, KPMG, SAP, Liebherr, Bell Pottinger — blue chip multinationals had all piled in, eating the state’s carrion like hyenas at a third-rate game park.
It was all symbolised by the Gupta family’s relationship with Zuma — three Indian brothers with a Johannesburg Stock Exchange-listed business and no ostensible ties to government — who together ran a shadow state that was more powerful than the actual state.
There was no longer anywhere to hide. And yet, Mantashe hid.
Gwede Mantashe: When you say you are unable to deal with the Guptas, I was thinking as we were saying this, “what shall we do? Shall we deport them?” Because if we deport them, they will not be here. Maybe the problem will be resolved. And I said, “but a political party can’t do that. That’s the function of the state.” Government and the state must deal with that issue.
Richard Poplak: By 2017, the lid was off. It was a fight for what remained of the ANC, with Zuma’s proxy, the former minister and African Union chief, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, facing off with the formal economy’s proxy, Cyril Ramaphosa.
So dozy was this high-stakes campaign down at the bottom of Africa that it felt like a JM Coetzee novel edited for clarity by the head of a sleep clinic. There were no ideas. No policies. Ideological contestation was replaced by posturing, empty anti-corruptionism, emptier African nationalism and the usual communist cosplay.
Mincing his way through this mess was Gwede Mantashe, until the battle culminated at the ANC’s 54th electoral congress at the brutalist Nasrec compound, outside Johannesburg, a vast and horrific concrete structure built at the end of the previous regime.
You could almost taste the hatred in the awful food served to the press pool.
It was Ramaphosa’s Team CR17 pitted against the Zuma Radical Economic Transformation faction. Plutocrat vs populist kleptocrat.
News Clip: Comrade Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma received 2,261 votes, and Comrade Cyril Ramaphosa received 2,440 votes. We declare comrade Cyril Ramaphosa as the new president of the African National Congress.
Diana Neille: Although the ostensibly clean and ostensibly liberal Ramaphosa camp won, the elective conference was full of nasty little surprises, not least of which was how much money was spent on the two warring campaigns.
It later became clear that nearly half a billion rand was hosed into Team CR17 by corporate donors and Brand Name South Africans. This wasn’t illegal, but it was ugly, and the money was nearly matched by Zuma’s cabal, who got their funds from the likes of the Guptas, Ace Magashule and other shakedown artists.
This is Heinrich Böhmke, former trade unionist and director of the Specialised Skills Institute of SA, describing this process.
Heinrich Böhmke: The other rule was that we would have internal democracy, at least inside the ANC, branches were contested, the ideas were held, position papers were swapped. Nowadays, slates are composed, based on money… Positions in the ANC have become monetised, so that all throughout the entire ANC electoral system and their governance, and their own internal processes, people are selected based on being paid off. A lot of them are selected based on the amount of money that they could trade for the position that they had.
Diana Neille: After blowing hundreds of millions of rands on allegedly buying delegate votes, Ramaphosa claimed that it was a time for reform, a New Dawn, as the public relations machine put it.
And he set to work putting together his new cabinet from the shallow ANC talent pool.
President Cyril Ramaphosa: I’ve decided to make the following appointments to the National Executive… Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy will be Gwede Mantashe.
Richard Poplak: This should have been a happy story — a former mine worker and labour organiser takes over the mining ministry in the wake of liberation. This is what the new dispensation was all about.
Crack the J.C. le Roux.
Gwede Mantashe: Last year, I got three titles. One, is a coal fundamentalist. Second, is a fossil fuel dinosaur. Third, polluter of the year. All by journalists, our friends here, they gave me these titles. I took all of them. I am still asking for them to give me certificates… So I can hang them in my house.
Richard Poplak: Despite the jocularity, Mantashe is not playing around. His administration of the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy has been an exercise in the sort of collusion he helped perfect for the ANC over the years.
Ignoring renewables, Mantashe has done everything he could to ensure that coal remains by far South Africa’s main energy source — an entire network of mini-mafias and ANC-aligned corporations that benefit from coal production. And Mantashe appears to want those to remain intact.
He has insisted that liquid natural gas — LNG — will serve as an alternate fuel source, and so South Africa has backed the decrepit Mozambican government in its attempts to defeat an Islamic insurgency in its nascent gas fields in Cabo Delgado — fields in which the South African state is, as it happens, an investor.
He has backed the frankly insane Turkish Karpowership project, where three “emergency” power-providing LNG-burning ships would be docked on the coast, providing filthy energy for the “emergency period” of 20 years at least, at a cost of R218-billion, or $15-billion.
He has backed offshore seismic testing for oil and gas undertaken by Shell — in which the ANC has a stake — an exploration project that has repeatedly been halted in the courts.
He has called the opposition to these projects — wait for it! — “colonialism and apartheid of a special type”.
He has faced off against communities in the Eastern Cape, most famously in the coastal district of Xolobeni, who do not want mining projects in their midst.
We could go on, but we have to mention at least one last pipe dream — despite the costs, which South Africa simply cannot afford, and the association with Russian mega corruption, which South Africa also can’t afford, Gwede Mantashe is still committed to more nuclear power for South Africa.
Gwede Mantashe: Only now that Europe says so; we’ll begin to see gas and nuclear as part of the green transition. Before that, we did not… We said we must not touch fossil fuels, don’t touch nuclear, it’s expensive. And nobody want[s] to tell the story, that, in South Africa, the lowest cost of energy is from nuclear power station Koeberg. It’s the only source of energy, that give[s] us energy at 40 cents a unit.
We will… we will build nuclear… In modular form, and people will make offers for it.
Richard Poplak: Meanwhile, through a combination of red tape and departmental inefficiency, it’s now almost impossible to secure a mining prospecting licence in South Africa.
Looked at from above, what Mantashe appears to be doing is ring-fencing energy and minerals from the outside world, and allowing only players affiliated with the ruling party, and by extension the minister himself, a shot at the trough.
Textbook elite capture.
This theory is bolstered by the fact that the DMRE has a shadow head in Mantashe’s wife, Nolwandle. She is alleged to have scuppered mining deals that haven’t cut in the right people, and her involvement is reminiscent of a certain power couple — Drs Zweli and May Mkhize — who ripped off countless entities in their decades-long side hustle in neighbouring KZN.
Ferial Haffajee explains.
Ferial Haffajee: Gwede Mantashe, he’s named three times as receiving payola in the form of security upgrades at the Zondo Commission of Inquiry. And maybe the quantum of that is small, compared to the theft we’re used to, but his response to those was really interesting to me, in that he excused it.
Then, as a Mineral Resources and Energy Minister, I’ve just seen him yoking himself to big energy interests, to the detriment of South Africa. That has been, and is, quite alarming to me. And to see the politician that he is becoming, from the person who I’ve always known, has been a very uncomfortable transformation to observe.
Diana Neille: It’s enough to say that the status quo suits the company man who still has but one job: to sustain the institutions of corruption for the benefit of the ANC, which is itself a parasitic zombie walking toward the political grave.
Like Zweli Mkhize, like Ace Magashule, Mantashe likely harbours presidential ambitions. These are the Highwaymen, plundering South Africa under the umbrella of an old, once-beloved liberation movement that has been the political and spiritual home for five generations of South Africans.
As we traverse the potholed roads of the Eastern Cape, with Gwede Mantashe’s recriminations ringing in our ears, we head towards one last stop — a makeshift army on the edge of South Africa’s future. DM
Fact-checking and additional research by Sasha Wales-Smith.