David Mabuza’s strategic manoeuvres challenge both his boss’s authority and the plans to reform the economy
On the eve of the expected announcement of his drastically trimmed and revamped cabinet on 27 May, a power struggle erupted between President Cyril Ramaphosa and his deputy in the last administration, David Mabuza. It could define – even prematurely end – Ramaphosa's term of office. 'It is more like a chess championship than a wrestling match,' said a close observer. 'There will be many calls of "check" but "checkmate" seems a long way off.' The test of strength between Ramaphosa and Mabuza could determine the future trajectory of the ruling African National Congress and whether it can find a balance between attracting foreign investment on the one hand, and alleviating poverty and creating jobs on the other (AC Vol 60 No 10, The Ramaphosa relaunch).
'If there is an ongoing stalemate between the factions, the economy will sink deeper into the morass,' a prominent CEO who participates in presidential advice forums warned. Moody's, the last of three key global rating agencies to continue to rate South Africa as worthy of investment-grade status, is poised to downgrade the country unless the new government signals investor-friendly policies (AC Vol 58 No 9, Mr Gigabyte's baptism of fire).
The economy lingers at below 1% growth and needs to achieve 3-5% to make an impact on rampant unemployment of 27% nationwide and over 50% for youth (AC Vol 60 No 3, Glitches in the growth).
When Mabuza signalled that he would not take the oath for Parliament on 22 May, he set off a chain of events which eventually forced Ramaphosa to delay his cabinet announcement, and demonstrated Mabuza's tactical acuity, an ANC insider said.
Ramaphosa's close association with Mabuza is seen as toxic by investors and analysts alike. Mabuza, sometimes called 'the cat' for his political survival skills, now hovers between the Jacob Zuma and Ramaphosa ANC factions, having formerly been seen as a Zuma loyalist. He delivered a key bloc of votes for Ramaphosa at the December 2017 ANC elective conference and was once one of the three influential 'Premier League' provincial premiers (AC Vol 58 No 21, Mabuza changes the race). Aged 58, he has presidential ambitions of his own.
'There is no doubt that Ramaphosa's association with David Mabuza has dented his reputation and will continue to damage his campaign to attract foreign investment,' a leading investor in the City of London told Africa Confidential.
Conscious of the danger Mabuza poses to him, Ramaphosa hoped that the ANC's Integrity Commission could put a brake on his progress, and that of other senior officials he wanted to move against. It was asked by the ANC's 'top six' to vet 32 marked names on the party's controversial list of 200 parliamentary candidates back in February this year with a view to investigating whether they were 'compromised' by corruption allegations.
The 'names' would be given a chance to put their case to the top six before they were referred to the Integrity Commission.
The Integrity Commission would in turn decide which names should be removed from the ANC master list before being submitted to the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) for the national poll on 8 May, the sources said. However, ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule never wrote, as he was supposed to, to those on the marked list, and the Integrity Commission, headed by George Mashamba, never received clarification on its powers. This meant the Commission never got as far as taking any names off the full candidate list before the ANC submitted it to the IEC.
Those whose names had been marked were neither informed nor given a hearing by either the top six or the Integrity Commission. The President was disappointed that the Commission could not entangle his enemies in investigative processes, we hear.
The list of 32 marked names was later whittled down to 23 which eventually went forward to the Commission. When Mabuza discovered that his name was on the list he announced that he would not join those being sworn into Parliament until he had cleared his name. The constitution requires the Deputy President to be a member of Parliament.
The 23 names were divided into three categories: those who had been found guilty in judgements by the Constitutional Court which had serious implications for their integrity; the second category were those who had been tainted by allegations of corruption in judicial commissions appointed by the President; and the third faced allegations of corruption outside of the commissions or courts, mainly in the media.
Women's League President Bathabile Dlamini and former Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba were disqualified in the first category; the 19 named in the second category included current ANC chair Gwede Mantashe, Supra Mahumapelo, former Premier of North West province, and former ministers Bongani Bongo, Faith Muthambi, Mosebenzi Zwane and Nomvula Mokonyane. The third category consisted of only two names: Zizi Kodwa, head of the Presidency at ANC HQ, and Mabuza.
Mabuza was deftly calling the Commission's bluff by refusing the parliamentary oath until he had appeared before it, which came on 24 May. Not having any investigative powers, let alone the right to call witnesses or gather evidence, the Commission had nothing against Mabuza other than allegations. On 27 May, therefore, the Commission admitted it could not take the matter further, and Mabuza duly described himself as 'cleared'. The Commission could not contradict him without exposing its own toothlessness.
Mabuza's name has been linked to a series of scandals during his term as Premier of Mpumalanga province including the rigging of state tenders, bribery and having political opponents assassinated. He has consistently denied the allegations. Usefully for his chances of becoming Deputy President again, Mabuza was also 'cleared' the day before Ramaphosa's inauguration by the Public Protector, Busisiwe Mkhwebane, of unauthorised expenditures totalling 5 million rand (US$340,000) on luxury vehicles, and 70m rand on a memorial service for former president Nelson Mandela. Mkhwebane was appointed to the post by Zuma to replace Thuli Madonsela, the Public Protector who called for the 'state capture' inquiries into the Gupta brothers' affairs.
In a further indication that Zuma's ghost is by no means laid to rest, Mkhwebane found against Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan for awarding a pay-out and early retirement to Ivan Pillay, a senior official at the South African Revenue Service (SARS), in 2010 during his first stint as Finance Minister. She called on Ramaphosa to discipline Gordhan for contravening the constitution. Gordhan will take Zuma appointee Mkhwebane's recommendation to judicial review, but it's an unwelcome development seemingly timed to embarrass Ramaphosa.
It is understood that Magashule was the most senior ANC official at the original meeting of senior ANC leaders setting up the Integrity Commission review. As Secretary-General, the most senior position after Ramaphosa, he was responsible for implementing the decisions taken by the top six and at the NEC meeting. Magashule is himself tainted by accusations of corruption while Premier of the Free State province and considered the least enthusiastic about Ramaphosa's leadership while harbouring his own ambitions for the top job. His name did not appear on the marked list.
The constitution indicates that Ramaphosa has five days to take up office after inauguration but is less clear about when the executive has to be finalised. Several flagged candidates had already withdrawn from the parliamentary list including Gigaba and outgoing environmental affairs minister Mokonyane (AC Vol 60 No 9, ANC split threatens campaign). Gigaba and Mantashe also met the Commission on 24 May.
Insiders say that Ramaphosa had worked out a careful strategy to achieve a degree of unity between the warring ANC factions which would allow him to stamp his own authority on the party and pursue his anti-corruption and pro-growth policies. The strategy involved at least temporarily side-lining Mabuza by replacing him with Minister in the Presidency Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who fought Ramaphosa for the ANC leadership, but has been supportive of Ramaphosa's leadership and declared that she would gratefully carry out any task she was given.
With Dlamini-Zuma in the Deputy President role, Ramaphosa could kill several birds with one stone: he would be restoring the status of the Zulu-dominated KwaZulu-Natal province which was marginalised in the first Ramaphosa cabinet; he would be healing the wounds of the closely-fought leadership battle in December 2017; and he would be honouring the ANC decision to promote women in top leadership positions including the Presidency.
Insiders say that major changes are due at ANC headquarters as the likes of Senzo Mchunu, narrowly beaten to the post of Secretary-General by Magashule in the 2017 election, Kodwa and ANC election chief Fikile Mbalula, a former Zuma loyalist turned Ramaphosa fan, leave for government positions.
'If Magashule does not face corruption charges in court, his ability to run the show at ANC headquarters is likely to be severely constrained by a new crop of officials supportive of Ramaphosa,' an ANC insider said.
The balance of power in the ANC's 'top six' has been painfully divided between the warring factions. Mabuza, Mantashe and ANC Treasurer-General Paul Mashatile are considered supportive of Ramaphosa in varying degrees while Magashule and Deputy Secretary-General Jessie Duarte, a Zuma loyalist, are seen as hostile.
The key battle now is over Mabuza. If he becomes Deputy President again, it will mark a poor start for the president and cast a long shadow over his new term of office.
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