OPINION: Truth, power and the hidden political battles
Remember when ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe said the ANC would invite all media houses to Nkandla to establish the truth about the security upgrades at President Jacob Zuma's home? Remember also how Mantashe called on the Minister of Police to take 'appropriate action' against National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega for saying the Nkandla swimming pool was a fire pool? Notice how neither of these things happened? Notice also how Mantashe is steering clear of Nkandla these days? If you consider all this, you will know why what ANC Gauteng chairperson Paul Mashatile and Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema said at Daily Maverick's The Gathering 2015 was so significant.
After the ANC's drop in support in Gauteng in the 2014 elections, there was talk of plans by Luthuli House to disband the party's provincial executive committee. Of course, the provincial structure could hardly be blamed for the ANC losing support when the alarm bells had been ringing about how e-tolls and Nkandla would impact the middle-class vote. But the ANC's national leadership would not and could not do anything on either issue. E-tolls, everyone had been told, was a closed matter. Saying anything critical about Nkandla was a suicide mission. You might as well set your own hair own fire. Or just quit politics.
Following the release of Public Protector Thuli Madonsela's report on the Nkandla security upgrades in March 2014, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe said action should be taken against National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega for misleading the public that the swimming pool was a 'fire pool. He also said the ANC would take the media to Nkandla to see the upgrades for themselves. Both these announcements were widely reported but, uncharacteristically, Mantashe never followed up or mentioned them again.
ANC sources said President Jacob Zuma was offended by Mantashe's invitation to take the media to his private home, but this was never fully confirmed. It became clear in the months to follow that the ANC had to work to discredit the findings in Madonsela's Nkandla report, therefore it would not have been possible to take action selectively against anyone, including Phiyega. Since then, Mantashe has backtracked completely on Nkandla. For someone as controlling and belligerent as Mantashe to back off and go quiet, it means he took serious heat from higher up.
The ANC in Parliament has bent over backwards to try to diminish the standing of the Public Protector's report and shield Zuma from scrutiny. The assumption has long been that Mantashe was dictating the line of march to the ANC caucus. But in the last few months, talk has emerged in ANC circles that the secretary general was under enormous pressure himself and that there were strains between him and Zuma.
Of course, as soon as succession debates begin in the ANC, all sorts of speculation does the rounds about factions and who is in line for which position. The gossip mill has it that Mantashe wants to be Cyril Ramaphosa's number two, but that Zuma does not support this. With the ANC's elective conference only in December 2017, it is way too early to know for certain who has designs on which position and who will end up actually contesting these. In any event, dynamics change, factions mutate and new alliances form. Absolutely nothing is set in stone.
Still, it is strange why the ANC has not been able to shut down the Nkandla matter up to now, despite the serious damage it is causing to the organisation, and has avoided commenting on Police Minister Nkosinathi Nhleko's report. Nhleko presented alternate findings to Madonsela's report and concluded that Zuma should not pay back any money for the upgrades.
On Thursday, at Daily Maverick's The Gathering, Gauteng chairperson Paul Mashatile took the extraordinary step of distancing the ANC from Nhleko's report and also saying that the organisation did not endorse any more money being spent to upgrade security at Nkandla.
On the face of it, what Mashatile said was not that ground-breaking. He did not lash out at Nhleko, condemn the spending or attack Zuma for refusing to be held accountable at the expense of the ANC. Neither did he grandstand on the issue. All he did was state the facts.
On Nhleko's report, Mashatile said: "For now I would like to say it is his view. I heard for the first time that the minister said this. I do not agree with it."
He went further said that Nhleko's report had not been presented to the ANC national executive committee (NEC).
"That report never came to the ANC. In our right minds we can't say when the public are complaining, then we say we are going to spend more. That issue is still going to be discussed by the NEC itself, because it never came to us."
The reason Mashatile's statements sent shockwaves around the country was because nobody in the ANC would dare say such things without fearing the consequences for their political careers and the structures they represent.
Mashatile already paid a high price for challenging Zuma at the ANC conference in 2012 by leading the campaign for Kgalema Motlanthe to replace him. He lost his position in Cabinet and an axe has been hanging over the Gauteng ANC ever since.
The intention last year to disband the provincial executive committee was a move by the national leadership to neuter the ANC in Gauteng. But the provincial leadership stood strong, and withstood attempts by Luthuli House to again impose a premier on Gauteng. David Makhura was the choice of the province, and his very first move was to rattle the cage by appointing a panel to review the impact of e-tolls on the province.
In October last year, the ANC in Gauteng's defiance increased when they adopted a resolution saying they rejected e-tolls in the current form. It was quite clear that neither the provincial government nor the ANC in Gauteng had the power the change or scrap the system. What they did was use their influence and leverage to reopen the issue. National government gave in to the pressure and adapted the system with reduced costs.
But Mashatile is not done on the matter. He said at The Gathering that the issue of unpaid e-toll bills should be re-looked as the debt was incurred at the previous cost. What he was essentially doing was prying the matter open once again after Ramaphosa had shut it down.
The line from Makhura and Mashatile appears to be that they cannot be deaf to the complaints and discontent from the public. They want to distinguish the Gauteng ANC and government as organisations that are responsive and will not go along with the conspiracy of silence and protection of the interests of the president as the rest of the ANC seems happy to do.
But Mashatile, in particular, seems to be tramping on some very powerful toes. It appears he does not care about the cost to his career politically or the pressure he will come under, despite witnessing how Mantashe is withering in the heat. The difference is that Mashatile knows he has a province firmly behind him that wants to take a stand or face the prospect of haemorrhaging even more votes in the local government elections next year and possibly lose control of the province in 2019.
There have been claims that the Gauteng ANC wants to recall Mashatile from the National Assembly and either have him serve as an MEC in the province or focus full time on ANC work. This will cushion him further from reprisals should he chose to speak out more. It is also clear now that the province wants Mashatile to compete for one of the top six positions in 2017.
The trouble though for Mashatile is that the counter attack will never come in ways you can predict.
Economic Freedom Fighters president Julius Malema made a startling revelation when he spoke at The Gathering. It had always been a mystery why the coalition that got Zuma elected as ANC president in Polokwane in 2007 unravelled within a year. The ANC Youth League, led by Malema at the time, suddenly started campaigning for Mantashe to be replaced by Fikile Mbalula for the position of secretary general. Malema revealed on Thursday that he had been instructed by Zuma directly to campaign against Mantashe.
At face value, this does not make sense as Mantashe has been a handy henchman for Zuma. However, Mantashe was on the Zuma slate representing Cosatu and the South African Communist Party's (SACP) interests. After being elected, Zuma did not really need them any longer. Therefore Mantashe was expendable. However, when Malema and Co turned their guns on Zuma himself, Mantashe became useful again to deal with them.
We will never know if Mantashe even knew about this, but it is not accidental that Malema made the revelations now. With Mantashe already on the backfoot, Malema's statement will disconcert him further and cause more fear and instability in the ANC and the alliance at a time when several structures are in disarray or fraught with divisions. It will also signal to those who do the president's bidding how the tables can turn against them.
Malema became expendable, just as Mantashe is now. That fate could befall many a current warrior for Zuma, as their usefulness comes to an end.
Mantashe's problems are exacerbated by the fact that his core constituency in Cosatu and the SACP has become toothless and too weak to stand behind him should he chose to fight back. Mashatile, on the other hand, has a formidable province behind him and therefore can fight back. The spinoff from his statements on Nkandla and e-tolls is that it might embolden others in the ANC who have been angry and embarrassed by these and other issues, such as Marikana and government's treatment of foreign nationals during Operation Fiela, to speak up.
As The Gathering 2015 came to its thunderous end, it was not difficult to see just how deeply South Africa is caught in the vortex of multiple crises and raging storms, all of which centre around a dearth of proper leadership in the country's Ground Zero of power. For the country to halt its downward spiral, more voices need to speak truth to power and people of courage must take action.
As South Africa searches for these new people, new ideas and bold actions, it was indeed a great honour for Daily Maverick to host such a profoundly meaningful line-up and calibre of speakers at The Gathering 2015, people whose voices will change the game, even the way it is played. It was a source of tremendous pride that every person who featured on our stage gave the best of what they do and who they are. There were seminal moments that help us understand what is happening in our country and what is yet to come. We had a peek into a new generation, the people who can move beyond prescribed positions and stereotypes.
Will these have resonance? Who knows at this point? What we do know is that one wintery day in 2015, something significant happened in our country. And the impact could be felt for a long time to come.