One of the ANC's and government's fiercest critics, political economist Moeletsi Mbeki is accused by a senior staffer and prominent political analyst of being a double-dealer who criticises in public, but is willing to bend over backwards to protect his politically linked business interests behind closed doors.
Prince Mashele, the former chief executive of Mbeki's think-tank, the Forum for Public Dialogue (FPD), criticised Mbeki in a resignation letter addressed to the organisation's board of directors.
At the centre of the feud is a survey conducted among labour federation Cosatu's shop stewards. Its release was suppressed a few hours before a scheduled media briefing last month. Mashele accused Mbeki of assisting Cosatu to suppress the release of the study to protect what "appears to be a dirty BEE [black economic empowerment] deal with Numsa".
Mbeki responded angrily to Mail & Guardian questions emailed to him and even threatened legal action should the story be published.
"Before any formal response is possible, the board requires the circumstances of the M&G receiving the information on which it now seeks our comment," reads Mbeki's letter to the M&G on Thursday. "We would require advice from our legal team based on your response before any comment would be possible."
A source with knowledge of the details, however, said that in a moment of "frustration" with the Cosatu survey debacle last month, Mbeki mentioned the Numsa deal and how he had worked long and hard to make it a reality.
The release of the survey results was postponed just before the ANC's national conference in Mangaung after Cosatu told researchers it was "uncomfortable" about it. The study found that Cosatu shop stewards wanted the union federation to form a workers' party, had lost confidence in the South African Communist Party and would like to see the country's mines nationalised.
A different view Even more worrying to Cosatu was that the study also found that the majority of the more than 2 000 shop stewards surveyed did not support Jacob Zuma's re-election as ANC president, preferring instead his former deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe. This stance differed with the Cosatu leadership's decision to support Zuma's re-election at Mangaung.
Mbeki apparently gave in to Cosatu's pressure because he feared that failing to do that would jeopardise a business deal he is pursuing with metalworkers' union Numsa, a powerful Cosatu affiliate.
Mbeki is said to have approached Numsa Investment Company to get the union to partner with him and acquire a stake in Scaw Metals from the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC). Another source involved in the Scaw Metals deal confirmed Mbeki is in talks to acquire a stake in the company and has spoken to Numsa and the IDC about this.
Two sources said Mbeki suddenly offered Cosatu a blank cheque to decide if and when the survey results could be made public. Mashele and a senior researcher on the project, Brutus Malada, held a different view, but their boss insisted that the survey be suppressed.
Mbeki, who is the chairperson of the FPD board, suspended Mashele, apparently to remove him from the process while a solution was sought to make Cosatu happy. Mashele was officially suspended last week for insubordination and issuing a press statement without Mbeki's approval, but he resigned two days later, calling the charges "smoky".
In his resignation letter to the FPB board, Mashele said he had personally negotiated the terms of the survey with Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi and that "the claim by Mbeki that the FPD needed permission from Cosatu before publishing findings of the survey is farfetched". Mashele's letter said there was an audio recording of a board meeting that made it clear that the FPD did not need Cosatu's permission to release the survey.
In the letter, Mashele accused Mbeki of prioritising his business interests.
Money matters "I know the real reason for my suspension is that the findings of the Cosatu study complicated Mbeki's business interests. He found himself in the tricky situation of having to choose between the FPD's independence or lose his money in what appears to be a dirty BEE deal with Numsa. Clearly money matters."
Mbeki is also known to be critical of the way BEE has been implemented in the country, calling it "legalised corruption".
"If you made me president of South Africa, the first thing I would do would be to scrap everything to do with black economic empowerment," Mbeki said in a 2009 Reuters interview. Mashele's letter implied that Mbeki was a hypocrite.
"The gap between what people say and what they do can sometimes be vast," he said. "As FPD matures into a respectable think-tank, I hope its independence will not be compromised by the financial interests of its staff or board members."
Mashele shared the letter with the think-tank's staff members on email because he did not want them to "fall prey to falsehood" about his resignation.
"I hope none [of you] will do anything to dilute your proud products, or to twist your products to suit non-FPD purposes," he said.
Asked whether he had read Mashele's resignation letter, Mbeki said: "There are many nut cases here in South Africa. If you, the Mail & Guardian, believes this is credible and it's true then you must go and get me the evidence before I respond to your questions."
Too early Mashele this week acknowledged the letter in an interview and said he stood by its contents.
He refused to answer specific questions about the souring of his relationship with Mbeki, saying: "I've left the FPD and any matter related to the FPD should be dealt with by people who are still there."
Numsa Investment Company chief executive Khandani Msibi did not deny that a deal was in the works, but said it was too early to discuss the company's business involvement with Mbeki or Scaw Metals.
"We really can't comment about that at the moment because we are still talking to people. If there is any news on these deals, we'll be prepared to share information. Why don't you wait for us to make an announcement?"
Msibi said it was "unfortunate" that Mbeki's problems with Mashele could have "reference to another thing that's not related to it".
Cosatu last month said there was nothing sinister about suspending the release of findings of the survey because the research was incomplete. It would be released this year. Vavi this week said Mashele's claim that he had negotiated the conditions of the survey directly with him was "nonsense" and that Cosatu had a say in the study. "The date of him releasing that study … yes, he discussed it with me, but not the terms of the survey."
Tweak or suppress Vavi refused to be drawn into allegations of Mbeki's business deals with Numsa.
Those close to Mashele, however, back his claim.
"The deal was that the FPD would not go public before Cosatu saw the findings, but it had no right to tweak or suppress the study once it had seen it," a source said.
An FPD source said senior researcher Malada had presented the survey's outcomes to Cosatu a day before the results were due to be released to the media.
"No one questioned the credibility of the study. Everyone was shocked and quiet," the source said. "The faction politics then started kicking in and they asked: 'Why are you in a hurry to release this stuff? By the way, this study was done by Prince, and we know how critical he has always been of Cosatu and the ANC.
"Cosatu didn't contribute a cent, therefore it had no right to tell us what to do with the study," the source said.
There are now fears within the FPD that the survey's findings may be "sanitised" before they are released next month.