[OPINION] The Cat from the Wild East - David Mabuza
David Mabuza, the premier of the Mpumalanga province, has earned various monikers during his turbulent political career, which led from Brondal near White River, through the United Democratic Front (UDF), all the way to ANC kingmaker. But the one that best describes him is self-anointed - he calls himself ‘The Cat’. It’s a reference to his ability to reinvent himself, to bounce back from political defeat. When he returned from a mysterious two-month hiatus due to apparent poisoning in 2015, he told his supporters “the cat was back”.
According to reports at the time, he used an isiZulu saying: “bese kuka mpunzi edla emini”, which loosely translated means “the bucks were eating in broad daylight”.
“What does a mouse do when the cat is away? They kept on saying the cat is not here. I hear the [youth league] saying there was no hunger, they were doing as they please. The cat is back. But I see the building is still here, which means there are still people. I’m happy we’re back together. The cat is back. The dog is back and is going to hunt,” he reportedly said.
Mabusa is also endearingly referred to by his supporters as ‘DD’. A teacher by training, he stepped into the political arena at the age of 26 when he was recruited by his political mentor turned nemesis, former Mpumalanga premier Mathews Phosa. Phosa initially brought him into the UDF, but Mabuza went on to become the regional chairman of the ANC between 1994 and 1998, a member of the Mpumalanga legislature and then an MP for the party. Later on, it was also Phosa who appointed Mabuza as his MEC for Education. But their relationship soured when Phosa had to fire him for inflating matric results in the province and causing a national embarrassment.
But true to his reputation as ‘The Cat’, Mabuza bounced back and rode the Zuma wave at Polokwane in 2007 throwing his support behind JZ. He was voted onto the ANC’s national executive committee and became the premier in his home province.
David Mabuza with the Mpumalanga delegation during the nominations process at the ANC's national conference on 17 December 2017. Picture: Ihsaan Haffejee/EWN
At the helm in Mpumalanga, Mabuza has, by all accounts, set himself up atop a fiefdom ruling by fear and violence, leaving a trail of political assassinations and allegations of wide-scale corruption in his wake. City Press journalist Sizwe sama Yende, who wrote a book about Mpumalanga, dubbed his region ‘The Wild East’.
In 2009, R14 million in cash mysteriously disappeared from Mabuza’s home in Barberton known as ‘The Farm’. The entire incident was shrouded in secrecy, with police eventually confirming R4 million had been reported stolen, but only R1,200 was actually taken. It all smelt very dodgy, but disappeared into the news ether.
Mabuza’s relationship with the controversial Gupta family was also questioned after he accepted a ride to Russia on the family’s private jet. This was at the time when he was crippled by poisoning and was apparently too sick to fly on the national carrier. However, he later distanced himself from the Guptas and denied a report that the New Age newspaper had entered into a R7 million deal with the provincial government. IT businessman Robert Gumede has also publicly campaigned for Mabuza and endorsed him to be president.
While there have been allegations of corruption, it is Mabuza’s apparent hand in political killings in Mpumalanga that hang like a dark cloud over him. Mbombela speaker Jimmy Mohlala was murdered for blowing the whistle on massive World Cup-related corruption. James Nkambule was poisoned for claiming politicians were behind the assassinations. There were others that were killed too and before long, politically motivated hits were commonplace in Mabuza’s hood. Former Police Commissioner Bheki Cele even set up a commission of inquiry into the murders. When Sunday Times journalist Mzilikazi Wa Afrika began to write stories about this, he was taken into custody. Many said Mabuza was behind that arrest.
Despite this, Mabuza is a popular man amongst the people in his province. He has positioned Mpumalanga as powerful and influential in the national landscape of politics. He is part of the so-called ‘Premier League’, seen as potential kingmakers in the ruling party. He has also shown cunning and guile in the run-up to Nasrec, attempting to leverage his power by pushing a ‘Unity’ campaign to capture a Top Six position in the ANC.
But controversy has never been far behind him. Phosa has accused him of using a ‘private army’ to scare ANC members. He also previously accused him of being an apartheid spy, a claim which led to a courtroom showdown.
‘DD’ has displayed his ability, like The Cat, to bounce back from the dead and reinvent himself politically with his many lives. His next political incarnation may just be that of deputy president of the ANC.
Mandy Wiener is a freelance journalist and author working for Eyewitness News. Follow her on Twitter: @mandywiener