Former unionist Gwede Mantashe may be the most powerful secretary general since the ANC was unbanned.
ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe inspires strong opinions. Some say he is autocratic, confrontational, even inefficient, whereas others say he provides inspirational leadership.
National executive committee members can no longer conduct media interviews without approval from Mantashe, after he threatened to "punish" those found to be leaking information to the press. It was not clear what this punishment would entail.
Despite this, four NEC members agreed this week to speak to the Mail & Guardian, albeit off the record, about their experiences of Mantashe's leadership style.
"That's the decision [on media interviews] taken at the first NEC meeting," said one NEC source. "We're not saying permission [to give interviews] per se, it's just to alert the office of the secretary general, so that people are not surprised when they read the newspapers."
Mantashe has, however, been given the power to "advise against doing an interview," said the NEC source.
Speaking to the M&G this week, Mantashe said it was untrue that he had been given unfettered powers beyond his constitutional responsibilities.
"I don't vet interviews or put restrictions on any ANC NEC member. I have never said people cannot talk to the media until I have authorised it. Jackson [Mthembu] is in charge of communications."
'No scoop from sources'
But it appears that NEC members are taking Mantashe's warning seriously. At an NEC press conference two weeks ago, he boasted to journalists that he had read that day's newspapers and had found "no scoop from sources".
At the Polokwane conference six years ago, the party adopted a decision to strengthen the office of the secretary general as it was felt that then ANC president Thabo Mbeki overshadowed then secretary general Kgalema Motlanthe.
President Jacob Zuma, on the other hand, is not seen to be involved in the day-to-day activities of the party.
A long-standing NEC member said Mantashe was so powerful, he had now crossed the line that separated the ruling party from government.
"One will get a better sense of that [his power] at the NEC lekgotla, but he appears to be very strong," said the source.
The official cited Mantashe's reaction to mining company Amplats' recent announcement that it would close some of its shafts and cut thousands of jobs.
"I was shocked by his views on the mining stuff. He ventured into that environment very strongly," said the source, pointing out that Mantashe's pronouncements should have come from the mining minister.
"He had a strong view that mining must have a close relationship with the country and the people."
Another NEC member agreed that Mantashe had been emboldened by his re-election at Mangaung.
The source, who is sympathetic to the so-called "forces of change" that had wanted Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula to replace Mantashe, said the latter was "more daring now" and appeared to be dealing with the members who had opposed him and Zuma ahead of the Mangaung conference.
Mantashe also now has a bigger say in appointing the new chairs of NEC subcommittees, according to two NEC sources.
"We put our trust in the secretary general to do a good job and he did," said one.
Another said they saw nothing wrong with Mantashe leading the process of appointing subcommittee heads because a secretary general was supposed to "provide guidance".
"In the first NEC, most of us don't know each other. The secretary general's office must lead the process by looking at different expertise and bring those recommendations to the NEC. Then the NEC will endorse or add to those recommendations."
Although the secretary general is in effect the chief executive of the ANC, few secretarys general have wielded the power that Mantashe has since being elected in 2007.
One NEC member said they believed Mantashe's powers were justified.
"The conditions under which he is operating are much more difficult and complex than before. People are asking more questions about the ANC and no secretary general has faced the amount of court cases he has had to face."
Supporters of Mantashe's leadership style describe him as "open and confrontational".
"When he has an issue with you, he puts it as it is, regardless of who you are," said an NEC member who worked with Mantashe on the campaign for Zuma's second term.
But, said this person, Mantashe did not follow the same confrontational approach with everyone.
"Obviously, with the president, he's a bit constrained."
Mantashe's aggressive way of addressing issues, which also extends to his relationship with other stakeholders such as business and the media, has created a perception of arrogance.
"Because he is confrontational, people perceive him to be arrogant, but he is able to acknowledge his mistakes and lack of judgement," said one of the NEC officials.
Meanwhile, Mantashe's detractors describe him as "terribly inefficient".
"He doesn't do much about the stuff that is reported to him by branches and/or provinces," said one member. He talks more than he [acts]."
Mantashe denied this.
The same NEC member also accused Mantashe of failing to hold the organisation together or run Luthuli House effectively.
"What he has done well is build a buffer to deal with those who criticise the president."
Mantashe said it was not the duty of a single man to unite the party.
"The reality of the matter is that problems at regions, provinces and nationally should be resolved organisationally. It is unrealistic to expect me to unite the organisation from national office," he said.
Though there is chatter that Mantashe may be put forward for the position of deputy president in 2017, he said he has not planned his political future.
"I have not applied my mind to what I will do after my term. I have a masters' degree in sociology. I am a farmer and I can always go into farming like Julius Malema.
"When people start planting ideas in other people's heads, I don't want to be part of that. It makes your head swollen and can cause lots of problems."