South Africa


Mabuza, we hardly knew ye – A deputy presidency comes to an end after five years of virtual invisibility

Mabuza, we hardly knew ye – A deputy presidency comes to an end after five years of virtual invisibility
David Mabuza gestures during an interview about his career and his future plans in politics during an interview in February 2017 in Nelspruit. (Photo by Gallo Images/Sunday Times/Masi Losi)

David Mabuza appears to have achieved virtually nothing while Deputy President. No visible achievements, no lasting and positive legacy, and no real-world contribution. He was almost set up for failure; such is the structure of politics all around the world that the position of Deputy President mostly leaves its incumbents frustrated. By choosing virtual invisibility, Mabuza has mostly himself to blame though.

There are many curious and perhaps contradictory elements to David Mabuza’s time in office. 

His supporters could say he achieved the position of Deputy President because of his decision to support what he described as “unity” at Nasrec in 2017. And it was this decision, paraded as a principled one, that pushed him into the position of Deputy President in the first place.

His supporters could also say that it was (again) his principled decision that brought an end to his time in office. It was his decision to resign and thus clear the space for the President to appoint his successor.

And they could say that he did this because he was loyal to the ANC.

There is, of course, another way to look at it. In the days before Cyril Ramaphosa appointed his 2019 Cabinet, Mabuza had the power to force him to delay this announcement, because he wanted to go through the ANC’s Integrity Commission before being appointed.

The Mabuza Dilemma: A puzzle wrapped into … something, anything

And, when he left office, he did so also on his terms. So, rather than this being an act of principle, it was that he wanted to control how he left office.

Accordingly, his record will forever reflect that he resigned as Deputy President and was not fired.

But to examine his time in office is to find precious few public clues as to what he actually did while ostensibly SA’s No 2.

Technically, he was in charge of the Eskom “War Room”, the benefits of which appear to be non-existent.

Certainly, there is no public evidence that it led to any more power generation capacity. He was silent during the public debates about the transition from coal to renewable power, appeared absent during periods of load shedding and said nothing of substance on the issue at all.

He was also supposed to play a role in the roll-out of Covid-19 vaccines during the pandemic.

Here again, apart from perhaps two public appearances on the issue (including an “inspection” of the Biovac facility), any action that he took was either largely invisible or was conducted in a parallel space-time continuum that is inaccessible to mere mortals.

For the last five years, Mabuza hardly ever appeared in public. He did not do one single sit-down interview during his time in office. In fact, as far as can be determined, he has not done a single sit-down interview with any journalist for at least 15 years, and certainly since he appeared to play a role in the arrest and brief jailing of journalist Mzilikazi wa Afrika in 2010, he has not given any interviews.

Rather, he has done, by our count, perhaps three stand-ups, answering questions from a clutch of journalists, twice about vaccines, and once about the sanitation problems in Emfuleni.

For many people, perhaps the only public appearances by Mabuza have been his answers to parliamentary questions.

Here too, it appeared he was limiting his time as much as possible. He appeared to take every opportunity to do the appearance virtually, rather than in Parliament in person. While it was his right to do so, it may also have given the impression to some that he was avoiding in-person appearances.

If Mabuza, or his supporters, feel that he made a significant contribution, it was certainly their duty to ensure he was seen to do this.

When Ramaphosa described Mabuza’s service as “exceptional” this week, one does not know what he means.

Politics, so often, is about being seen to do something, which is sometimes the problem with democracy.

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Negotiations with Struggle veterans

However, for at least one constituency, there can be no denying that Mabuza has appeared to work incredibly hard.

He has appeared to spend much time in difficult negotiations with liberation Struggle veterans. While the identities of some of these people may be contested, he has appeared to put much effort into trying to resolve their issues.

No doubt they and their families will remember Mabuza fondly for this, although some may feel that he did not manage to make a lasting difference in their lives.

It is easy to blame Mabuza personally for this apparent lack of legacy. After all, he has agency, he had an important position for a long time and appeared to have the power to do things.

But in fact, his power to make any kind of change may have been very limited.

It is hard to look at any former deputy presidents and point to achievements in that office.

So often, the presidents at the time, seeing the person in that position as a rival, have given them duties designed to weaken them.

It was probably for this reason that Thabo Mbeki put Jacob Zuma in charge of the Moral Regeneration Movement and why Zuma put Ramaphosa in charge of the Eskom War Room and the e-tolls issue.

This is one of the consequences of the fact that the deputy presidency is very different to being a Cabinet minister. They have spelt-out responsibilities. But the Constitution says that the roles of the Deputy President are assigned to them by the President, who can deliberately limit their responsibilities.

This lack of action appears to have been seen by ANC delegates.

In 2017, Mabuza won more votes than any other candidate for a position on what was then the Top Six national officials.

In 2022, he received so few branch nominations that he declined to be entered into the race for any position.

Of course, there could be a possible, more charitable explanation for this apparent invisibility.

It is known that Mabuza has been unwell — he went to Russia several times for medical treatment. While one should give him some space to deal with this, he has also refused to give any details about his condition. Again, this is his right. 

Perhaps, if he had shared more information he may have found more sympathy. But he chose not to do so. Which only intensified the sense of mystery around him — it had already been created by his admission, several years ago, that he had been poisoned.

(The strategic threat that his illness posed cannot be overemphasised: South Africa’s No 2 leader, one heartbeat away from the presidency, was dependent on a foreign power for his life. For five years, that situation was not resolved. Just let it sink in. — Ed)

However, the real political lesson from Mabuza’s career so far, as has been examined previously, is how important a national constituency is in our politics.

His real weakness probably lay in the fact that once he left Mpumalanga the ANC in the province appeared to split into up to four different factions. As he had not been able to create a constituency in other provinces, this may have been fatal.

He is not alone in this dynamic. Something similar may well have happened to former ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule after he left the Free State.

Even Zweli Mkhize appeared to struggle to get support from provinces other than KwaZulu-Natal at last year’s ANC conference.

The nature of Mabuza’s deputy presidency may also have rested on another factor. So often, people in that position are almost forgotten by history, unless they go on to the top job.

And that may be Mabuza’s real problem, he has never really had a good shot at the top job.

It should also be remembered that it did not have to be this way.

In 2018, at one point, it looked as if he was making progress in rehabilitating his reputation.

At the time, as Ramaphosa was still cementing his grip on office, the burning issue was land, and expropriation without compensation. Mabuza gave what can only be described as a magnificent speech at a farmer’s event.

It may be worth repeating some of what he said, just to demonstrate the quality of the speech-writing: 

“It is understandable that human beings are prone, in times of national strife, in times of bitter socioeconomic hardship, in times of hard debates about land reform, to retreat easily into narrow nationalist, racial and ethnic enclaves … However, I stand in front of you on this day to state with conviction that this path we have chosen is the correct one.”

Also, he went on a political offensive, rebuking Magashule in Parliament, for the amount of money spent on his “farewell party” in the Free State.

It is not clear what changed between then and now.

Still, his time in office is not the totality of his political legacy.

While residents of Mpumalanga will have their own memories of his time as premier, he may be remembered on the national stage for one other major accomplishment.

Which is that when he appeared to hold the balance of power in the battle between Ramaphosa and Zuma, in December 2017, he backed Ramaphosa.

By doing this, he broke Zuma’s grip on power.

If he had chosen another course, our history could have been very different. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Jon Quirk says:

    The New York Times, in a devastating article. had the “King of Corruption in Mpumalanga”, marked as one of the most very corrupt and violent of men.

    He has now slipped out of the backdoor of public office, having ostensibly and visibly achieved nothing and having spent a great deal of the past years when in office, in Russia; extended periods of absence he has never even bothered to explain. So, doing what is a fair question?

    Just a few short weeks ago a Russian cargo ship pitches up, at the dead of night in Cape Town, deposits four containers, and takes away four more. What was left and what was taken? It is certainly firmly within the bounds of possibility that this was effectively Mabusa’s removal company, carting back to Russia all of his ill-gotten wealth – that would account for the four out-going.

    It is exactly how Russian oligarchs operate – and given what we do know of David Mabuza thus is as likely an explanation as any. That might explain the outflow”, but what about the inflow?

    Also of course, given it was moved in the dead of night, and very secretively, it must be decidedly suspect; and given it all happened just a short while before the “most important ANC elective conference”, perhaps pork-pie barrels of dollars and currency to bribe delegates? It is how both the ANC and Putin have been seen before to operate.

    All that has happened before. Thieves and vagabonds carry on this way; in the dark, at night, fat from preying eyes and never provide any, even remotely plausible explanation, so all is possible and the scenario herein outlined fits all the facts and personalities.

    And we will certainly never get an answer at all from our couch-stuffing President who is presently paralysed and cannot even name his new cabinet, so few friends does he have that he can trust in the ANC.

    In the words of Pravin Gordian – join up the dots..

    • Derrick Kourie says:

      Thank you for drawing attention to Mabuza as the “King of Corruption in Mpumalanga” — a theme that Stephen’s article does not address. The true story behind what happened in Mpumalanga during his tenure there still needs to be fully uncovered. But I guess that is wishful thinking.

    • Thinker and Doer says:

      Indeed, I think that we will very likely hear more as there is further reporting by the outstanding DM team on the criminal syndicates that have a stranglehold on Eskom in Mpumalanga…

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    So you are saying he’s a history maker. Mmmm … make history by doing nothing much about anything. We’re assuming he is sick because he says so, like Zuma who also made trips to Russia for treatment. Nope, there’s more to it me thinks… And I wonder when DM will tell us really what they know.

  • Patrick Devine says:

    DM should ask Fred Daniel’s to comment on the ‘hitman’ Mabuza’s legacy?

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    We used to say….” Good riddance to bad rubbish!” Seems appropriate here!

  • Libby De Villiers says:

    The political figure was a mask where, as long as he kept quiet and did nothing, he was in a perfect place to operate. And he did that well, but this man is a very, very dark horse.
    An investigator’s dream.

  • Grumpy Old Man says:

    When I think of the ANC I picture a free for all, no rules, fast food franchise. All of the franchisees claim loyalty to the brand & the product but in reality what’s on the menu is decided at regional level. The Franchise owner has no actual control; in fact they are merely a manifestation simply of Regional decision making. David Mabuza’s importance, position, kingmaker influence, his ability to evade prosecution is a direct consequence of party structure. It is a party which has no credible central control but conversely has to support the likes of a DD to ensure its own survival. If anyone is perplexed at CR & his apparent ‘lack of backbone’ its because power is ceded to him & comes with conditions. DD’s exit (I would then argue) has very little consequence in any of our lives cos he actually exited the stage long ago & was Deputy President in name only (a position which he may or may not have used to further his own ‘side hustle’ interests & probably in similar vein to many of his Cabinet colleagues)

  • Chris 123 says:

    Has everyone forgotten the deposition of the Mozambican hit man Fabiano “Josh” Dos Santos in February 2010 where he named Mabuza as his boss who ordered hits, the planting of drugs and poisonings. This is the man Ramaphosa spoke so kindly of. The ANC is definitely a mafia organization.

  • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

    The reality of the logic of Stephen can be extended to Cyril Ramaphosa as the Deputy to one Jacob Zuma whether we knew him or not and what he did or did not do during the worst years our country has ever faced. In addition, he needs to speak to the underwhelming achievements of Cyril in his first five years as the ANC President. Yes, we must say adios to DD Mabuza, but when we say so we have to carefully craft our words lest they come back to bite us. We have had an imperial Presidency under Cyril with envoys and other gimmicks that are a clear vote of no confidence in his Cabinet including DD Mabuza. If the excuse for Cyril is Covid, it must be extended to the rest of the Cabinet because he is the CEO of SA Inc. The internal dynamics of the ANC are not an excuse for incompetence and negligence by the President and by extension his Cabinet including his Deputy. You can never hear about such drivel in any country except South Africa where incompetence has a new excuse, the margin of win in a party conference.
    Mabuza was never going to have a second term because he no longer had the support he had in various Provinces. The votes Zweli Mkhize received were more than double those of KZN and it is the extension of the truth that his support was in KZN only to any person with basic arithmetic. We never know in politics that are awash with money whether it is the last we here about this grotesque fellow.

  • Johan Buys says:

    the only good thing one can say about him is that if he didn’t jump to the CR camp when he did, we would have had the RET crowd running SA under Kopdoek as president.

    sadly that might have been a good thing as then I’d have been living elsewhere if she had taken the presidency. It is truly unbelievable how a few hundred ANC politicians can mess up life for the other 60 million South Africans.

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