A closer look at the president's inner circle

Below is an edited extract from Richard Calland’s new book, Anatomy of South Africa: Who Holds the Power? published recently by Zebra Press

But who does Thabo Mbeki listen to and who does he take advice from? Power comes from different sources. Sometimes from office—with the political authority that comes with it—sometimes from access to the office-holder.

Mojanku Gumbi is a fascinating member of President Mbeki’s inner circle and a prime example of the latter category. Without noise or fanfare, she has glided into position as the president’s right-hand woman, though her official title is legal adviser to the president.
Asked about this, Joel Netshitenzhe, head of the presidential policy unit, says her constant interaction with the president is partly because “the legal area has a tendency of impacting on everything”. Also, because she is a “very good lawyer and a bloody good negotiator”, according to Alec Erwin.

Gumbi now stands head and shoulders above all the other advisers. Seldom does Mbeki meet anyone, or go anywhere, without her by his side. When the president-elect of Bolivia, Evo Morales, made an impromptu visit to South Africa in early January 2006, Mbeki agreed not only to meet with him, even though it was not a formal state visit—Morales had not yet been inaugurated—but greeted him at the bottom of the red-carpeted stairs of the west wing of the Union Buildings as if it were, in fact, a formal state visit.

By Mbeki’s side was Gumbi—tall, slim, elegant, sharp-suited and sharp-eyed, but with a broad, warm smile.

It is clear that, in terms of influence, Gumbi’s role now extends far beyond that of legal adviser—that she is less lawyer and more political fixer. She is, as another adviser in the wider presidency put it, “an all-rounder now. She is quite competent, and clearly the president has a lot of confidence in her. She has tremendous access and is close to him. She travels everywhere with him all the time.”

The same source confirms that Gumbi is “still Azapo”, and that there is a meeting of minds between the president and her on issues that are generally termed “African nationalism”.

Partly because of this meeting of minds, she is very loyal to Mbeki, but I suspect that some of her strength and appeal to the president is that she is no “yes-man”. She has the power to walk away, which enhances her ability to yield influence by looking him in the eye while talking to him frankly on a range of issues. Given her access, the value that Mbeki attaches to her views, and the natural advantages that lawyers have in both the domestic and international policy arena, Gumbi is now the president’s most influential adviser, which makes her one of the top five most powerful people in the country.

Trevor Manuel, as minister of finance, is the key player from the government-within-a- government’s perspective, again for obvious reasons. As to the ANC, it is more complex, but the key person and the lynchpin for all of this is Joel Netshitenzhe.

Netshitenzhe is the most extraordinary person. He attends all Cabinet meetings, is a member of the ANC’s National Executive Committee and is also one of the ANC’s leading thinkers and intellectuals, drafting many of the most influential internal discussion papers of the past 15 years.

Despite this awesome array of responsibilities and the power that accompanies it, Netshitenzhe is a remarkably nice person. Once one has got through the innate reserve and shyness, there is warmth and humanity, and a willing smile. It is all but impossible to find someone with a bad word to say about him; incredibly, he commands the respect of a huge range of people across the whole of the ANC-alliance spectrum. Almost everyone will, without prompting, mention his influence and intellectual integrity.

To one former Cabinet minister, Netshitenzhe is “elliptical, but independent—definitely not a lackey, though GCIS [Government Communication and Information System] is absolute crap”, while to a current Cabinet minister he is “a recessive character, very professional, very loyal, who does not often invoke his status. Because he does not throw his weight about, though he could, he keeps friends and rarely makes serious enemies.”

“Joel would die for the president,” says Bheki Khumalo, Mbeki’s spokesman from 1999 to 2005.

It may be unfair to attach him so closely to Mbeki, but one cannot help but feel that they are brothers in all but name. They share a disinclination for the limelight, yet they do not shun responsibility and take on huge amounts of work; they write prodigiously; they philosophise as much as they strategise; both men turn to Marxist theory to help explain political economy, yet they are both conspicuously determined to ensure that capital remains “onside”.

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