While the political commentariat has been, quite correctly, focused on the tension between President Cyril Ramaphosa and ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule,
this period of turmoil could be used by other actors. At least one, Deputy President David Mabuza, may seize the moment to increase his political power.
Deputy President David Mabuza is playing a fascinating and interesting game.
The current situation, with ANC Secretary-General AceMagashule appearing to be on the ropes, may help any ambitions he has.
The recent apparent defeat of Magashule at the ANC’s National Executive Committee
(NEC) meeting last week, and his possible, or even probable, suspension from his
position, may be the end of his hopes of one day leading the ANC.
Certainly, the “RET” faction of the ANC appears to have been muzzled.
Even the Ekurhuleni Mayor, Mzwandile Masina, usually a strong and very loud supporter of
Magashule, refused to even broach the issue during an interview with Newzroom Afrika just after the NEC meeting.
Others who had been vocal in their defence of the embattled secretary-general have also
gone silent. It has become so quiet that Carl Niehaus has had to cancel meetings meant
to organise events to support Magashule.
This suggests we could see the culmination of a three-year struggle, which may usher in
ultimate victory for the Ramaphosa faction.
But Magashule and his faction were never that likely to contend for state power in the first place.
The moment that he was formally charged with corruption may well have marked the
moment he was no longer a serious contender, at least not in a party that would want to
— at least officially — adhere to the rule of law in South Africa
Perhaps one of the biggest differences between Magashule and the former president Jacob
Zuma’s storming back after 2005 is that some of the testimony against Magashule has
already been heard, through the Zondo Commission, and serious allegations of criminality
have been put in the public domain by the media. In the case of Zuma, from 2005 until
the Polokwane 2007 conference, that evidence had not been heard in a formal setting and
could have been brushed aside by his followers as rumours and hearsay.
This means that the most likely contender for the position of the next ANC leader will be,
as it has so often been in the past, the person who is the deputy leader of the ANC.
Mabuza’s behaviour over the past few weeks has been fascinating.
Just last week he went on a visit to the municipality of Maluti-a-Phofung. This council has
been beset by service delivery failures and battles to keep the taps running and the lights
on. Community members have protested and there is no hope in sight for an end to the problems.
Curiously, Mabuza took questions on live TV from journalists who were there:
This followed a similar situation just three weeks ago, where Mabuza toured the Biovac vaccine facility in Gauteng:
There he also took questions from journalists, while on live TV.
Before these events, there had been virtually no instances where Mabuza had taken questions in an uncontrolled situation from journalists.
Even in Parliament, where he has a legal obligation to appear on a regular basis, his absence almost became the source of controversy when he appeared, in one instance, unable to answer questions because of illness.
Apart from his parliamentary Q&A sessions, the last time he actually faced journalists may have been just before the ANC’s Nasrec conference, when the ANC’s Mpumalanga province was about to vote on who it would support for ANC leader.
Even when he was accused of corruption, on the front page of The New York Times, he did not formally answer the claims against him. Instead, in a written response, he suggested that these were “baseless and unfounded exaggerations and sensational claims that have long been peddled by those who have sought to tarnish my name and image”.
But he did not explicitly deny the claims made against him.
There is nothing in Mabuza’s track record to suggest that he believes in openness and transparency. He has not answered questions in the past, there have been no sit-down interviews, and he has never been quizzed in a formal setting about the claims of corruption that have been made in public.
Rather, he was accused of arranging the arrest of the journalist Mzilikazi wa Afrika in 2010, purportedly for the crime of receiving a faxed copy of a document.
And he was rushed to Russia for emergency treatment after being poisoned, while premier of Mpumalanga.
However, this period — with Magashule on the ropes, and the part that Mabuza is playing in the roll-out of Covid-19 vaccines — may well be a golden opportunity for him.
This is because with the issue of vaccines so pressing, and his position as chair of the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Vaccines being so crucial, he can take a safe bet that the focus of questions he has to answer will be on vaccines.
In other words, voters and journalists need answers to vaccine questions, and possibly the situation in the ANC regarding Magashule, and will focus on these issues other than Mabuza’s own shortcomings.
This volatile moment gives Mabuza an opportunity to start another process, one that could be vital to his political future.
It is clear that he must find a way to rehabilitate himself in the eyes of voters, to move past the corruption allegations that many are aware of.
A successful vaccine roll-out could be a big part of that.
If Mabuza were seen as part of a successful vaccine leadership, the other issues around him could be regarded as less important.
At the same time, Mabuza may be concerned about suggestions that he is “losing his grip” in his home province of Mpumalanga.
It appears possible that some in his province are now going to enter the contest for power in the provincial ANC, a move that could remove what control he has had there.
This would leave him without a core constituency, making him more vulnerable, particularly if Ramaphosa believes Mabuza’s services are no longer pivotal.
As a result, he needs to ensure that his national image is acceptable to voters and ANC members. If he fails in that, then he cannot realistically bid for more political power.
However, he may find that his “new Mabuza”’ act is a tough one to master.
South Africa has, perhaps, become more demanding of its democratically elected leaders. It demands that they answer questions, that they provide opportunities to give interviews, and that they speak to their concerns. The criticism of Ramaphosa for not holding a formal press conference during the pandemic is an example of this.
Thus, it may be that Mabuza is not able to change the image of himself without a great sustained effort, which might include making himself available to sit under a very bright spotlight shining on the claims that have been made against him.