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Busisiwe Mkhwebane, a political actor

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Judith February is executive officer: Freedom Under Law. She writes in her personal capacity.

But by now it is quite clear that Mkhwebane has inserted herself into the political debate — but more than that, she has become a political actor herself. She has the political backing of the Ace Magashule faction of the ANC, and of Julius Malema and the EFF, a formidable phalanx which has benefited handsomely from the Zuma years.

It’s hard to recount the past week in South African politics when just the past day has so many headlines of its own.

Most of the past week has been focused on Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane, given the urgent application which Minister of Public Enterprises Pravin Gordhan brought to interdict her remedial action against him.

The public protector seems to have a curious way of choosing cases to pursue. She has continued to focus on the so-called “Rogue Unit” despite the matter being years old and despite it being investigated multiple times. She has complained about a lack of resources for her office yet has pursued only matters that seem to related to Ramaphosa’s clean-up of the state. She is now targeting the appointment of SARS Commissioner Edward Kieswetter.

In the Vrede dairy farm matter which seems to implicate ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule and Mosebenzi Zwane, Mkhwebane failed to interview any victims of what is clearly corruption. Strange, that.

But by now it is quite clear that Mkhwebane has inserted herself into the political debate — but more than that, she has become a political actor herself.

To any observer with a smidgen of sense, it has become clear that she has no interest in exercising her constitutional mandate to act in a manner that is “impartial”, “without fear or favour or prejudice”. Last week, the Constitutional Court delivered a scathing judgment against Mkhwebane for her “misstatements” in relation to facts and her general obfuscation. Yet she remains in office, determined to use public money to stave off every cost order against the Public Protector’s Office or her person.

After the Constitutional Court judgment, any lawyer with an ounce of pride in their work would have resigned forthwith. But that will not happen. Mkhwebane shrewdly understands that the Parliamentary process to remove a public protector is fraught and will easily show up the divisions within the ANC itself.

Given that she is politically embedded, her main aim appears to be to create an environment in which Ramaphosa is distracted and demoralised by her endless investigations and “nonsensical” findings. Ramaphosa, for his part, has said he will not be distracted and in his address to the nation made it quite clear that he believed she was not exercising her mandate in a way that is befitting of her office.

And so we are witnessing the Public Protector’s Office being weaponised against the president and his reform project.

Mkhwebane as a political actor understands that she has the support of those within the ANC who seek “radical economic transformation” (or perhaps, radical economic looting?) like Magashule and his corrupt faction. But she also knows that she has the support of Julius Malema and the EFF who will do whatever it takes to stymie Ramaphosa’s reform project inasmuch as it is not within their best interests, and where it turns off the tap of patronage and capture.

Together these two groupings form a formidable phalanx in favour of Mkhwebane. After all, they have benefited handsomely from the Zuma years and have many proverbial skeletons in the closet. Much has been written over the past week about Julius Malema’s ambitions and that aligning himself with the public protector and so vehemently against Gordhan is part of a strategy to make his way back into the ANC and thus become president.

EFF chair Dali Mpofu has also raised questions regarding Malema’s long-term future within the EFF, saying the party would benefit from “fresh ideas”.

There is no doubt that Malema has presidential ambitions. After all, the EFF in the run-up to the elections declared him “President-in-Waiting”. The problem, of course, is that the EFF is a 10.79% party. The 2019 election showed quite clearly that most South Africans find themselves in the centre-ground of South African politics. The majority of the vote was split between the ANC and the DA. In addition, the vote for the ANC at 57% was a conditional one — “clean up the state and we will give you this one last chance”, the electorate seemed to be saying.

That Malema and his red berets were unable to garner more of the youth vote even in an environment of extraordinarily high youth unemployment and the abysmal failure of the Zuma years, indicates that they need to rethink their strategy. Perhaps people aren’t all that taken with naked racism, name-calling and endless populist disruption? And perhaps too, ordinary voters see duplicity when it’s under their noses?

Should Malema wish to make his way back into the ANC, the question is: into which faction of the ANC will he make his way? He has identified himself firmly with the RET crowd, which includes, inter alia, Magashule and various deplorables such as Mosebenzi Zwane, Carl Niehaus, Faith Muthambi and Jacob Zuma, of course. It would be hard to see the ANC as it is constituted now welcoming Malema with open arms and paving a way for him to the presidency.

The RET crowd was unable to win convincingly at Nasrec either, so what would have changed between now and the next ANC elective conference? The weekend’s NEC meeting showed again that despite media hype, it does not hold singular sway over the ANC. The reality is rather more complex and the ANC divisions remain stubborn and destructive.

The more realistic scenario is that the ANC would soon split. And in that scenario, would a Malema, Magashule et al ticket really convince voters, whether they were to campaign under a new political banner or a tattered ANC banner? If Malema was unable to win an election under the banner of the EFF in 2019, what might the argument be for another new party to be formed with him running as its president or, indeed for him to campaign under the banner of a split or broken ANC?

Malema has mastered the art of occupying the media headlines. Whether it’s trashing H&M or Vodacom stores, hurling abuse at Pravin Gordhan, disrupting Parliament or, this week, trying to “call out” Derek Hanekom. The EFF strategy in relation to Hanekom seems to have failed abysmally. Hanekom admitted to meeting the EFF’s Godrich Gardee (at Mugg & Bean — a man of basic tastes then) to discuss the motion of no confidence in Zuma and how the EFF would be voting.

Apparently, the EFF thought this was news and Magashule played along by calling Hanekom a “charlatan”. Imagine being called a charlatan by Magashule? Hanekom shouldn’t be losing sleepless nights about that. The EFF then went on to say they were able to name 40 more MPs who wanted Zuma gone.

Only 40? How is this even vaguely relevant two years later, when the ANC itself recalled Zuma? Malema the disruptor, however, conveniently managed to fan the flames of dissent within the ANC as Magashule called for Hanekom to be hauled before the ANC’s integrity commission.

Predictably, the weekend’s ANC NEC ended like most others — in incoherence, factionalism and indecision. And without a clear-eyed focus on the things that matter, such as an economy in crisis. Deputy Secretary-General Jesse Duarte made a few comments about Jabu Mabuza’s twin interim appointments to Eskom and the mandate of the SA Reserve Bank.

There was more factionalism than fact or substance in either of her stated concerns. Allegations regarding spies, lies and informers have seen the ANC kick for touch as usual. The party is so divided that nothing ever gets resolved. And that is to the country’s detriment.

So Malema managed to sweep up the media — and the Twitter trolls the EFF uses were out in full force. The effect is to disrupt, distract and create chaos, and little else. But the reality is that Malema remains the leader of a 10.79% party which sounds just a trifle desperate to remove Gordhan, and who backs a hopelessly compromised, incompetent and confused public protector. Maybe, just maybe, they will both be hoist by their own petard?

In a country that now has a (narrow) unemployment rate of 29%, a crisis by any definition, and an electricity utility that is on the verge of collapse, we do not have the luxury of political factionalism, infighting and populist distraction. Ramaphosa knows this as well as anyone. He thus has some pretty tricky waters to navigate — both within his party and outside it. On the economic front, time is running out as our social fabric strains at the seams and rating agencies hover.

Ramaphosa would, therefore, do well to use the power of the presidency in a strategic manner. He needs to confront the naysayers and work furiously to create the broad-based societal coalition that will hold the looters and populists — within his own party and without — at bay. In other words, he should occupy the centre-ground with confidence.

It’s where he will find most South Africans. DM

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