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Zuma, Mantashe and the long night of the Cabinet

Political Staff

When choosing a Cabinet, striking the balance is always tricky especially if you have 67 positions to fill and are expected to repay debts.

President Jacob Zuma's ­Cabinet were sworn in on May 11 2009. (Lisa Skinner, M&G)

One by one, men and women were called by ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe to come to the presidential guesthouse in Pretoria. They had no clue why they had been asked to leave the comfort of their homes on a grey, cold, rainy day.

The call came hours after President Jacob Zuma was inaugurated on May 9 2009.

Some had an idea, a hunch that – unlike their peers – they were called to occupy the front benches of the ruling party as ministers or deputy ministers.

In a 2010 interview with the Star, former public works minister Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde remembered a similar call from Mantashe hours before a Cabinet reshuffle. "Comrade, you're being redeployed to public works as minister," he told her.

In 2009, Mantashe's authoritarian, gruff voice was not telling. The call was short and to the point – there was no chitchat.

Those called entered through the front south entrance of what is now known as the Sefako Makgatho guesthouse.

Most of them drove themselves to the meeting. Some of them had never been to the guesthouse before.

They were pleased, surprised, curious – and some were bewildered, if not shocked – to see their comrades and not-such-comrades.

Tea, food and of course whisky
Old members of the party's national executive committee were there. So were factional rivals.

There was coffee, tea, food and of course whisky. It was going to be a long night. For some, it would be a life-changing night.

With a variety of alcoholic beverages on offer, the chats and laughs became louder. The night vigil became a party, only for it to be regularly interrupted by a humourless Mantashe whistling a choral tune, his goatee leading the way, as he called the next interviewee in to meet Zuma. Then the colossal wooden doors would close shut behind them.

And then Zuma, in an overcoat – it was cold after it rained heavily minutes before his inauguration –  would appear to break the news of his new Cabinet.

By his side was his ­immediate predecessor, Kgalema Motlanthe, who had just been appointed deputy president.

The person called in would be told that he or she was appointed to the national executive committee – either as a minister or a deputy minister. Motlanthe would congratulate him or her; Mantashe would remind "the cadre" of the immense task ahead. Or just keep quiet.

A genial Zuma acted like a ­counsellor, with good banter and his trademark hearty chuckle: ­reminding the minister or deputy minister designate that his office would always be ready to assist, to listen and to advise.

'Don't talk to anyone'
The less than 10-minute meeting would be punctuated by strict instructions: "Don't call anyone, don't talk to anyone about this until the president has announced [it] to the ANC's national executive committee [NEC] and the public".

The person would be instructed not to go back to the revellers but use an alternative exit to the parking lot.

Apparently, the process was so tedious and long that some were only called in at dawn.

"I was called at 3am," reminisced one minister and a deputy minister said: "I got in around 5am. It was fun."

Ironically, some Zuma sympathisers complained about his predecessor Thabo Mbeki's humiliation of his comrades by making them wait the whole night to be told of their appointments.

What was so different in 2009?
Zuma would insist – according to the resolution of the party's 2007 national conference in Polokwane – on informing the ANC NEC, the ­party's ­second-highest ­decision-making body, before announcing his Cabinet to the public the ­following day.

The secretary general of the ANC did not sit in during Mbeki's appointments.

Zuma's list, unlike Mbeki's, would be shared, brainstormed and agreed with leaders of the ANC alliance partners.

He would caution against the ­"winners-take-all mentality" and urge his comrades to be inclusive and use Cabinet appointments as a healing process after the Polokwane divisions.

This is why, in an attempt to defuse factional tensions, Zuma's Cabinet included those – such as Trevor Manuel and Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula – who had supported Mbeki's failed bid for a third term as party president.

He also included leaders of the South African Communist Party such as Blade Nzimande, Jeremy Cronin and Rob Davies, and Cosatu's Ebrahim Patel and Noluthando Mayende-Sibiya (the latter was ditched after a reshuffle).

But striking the balance is always tricky, especially if you have 67 positions to fill – and are expected to repay debts. 

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