The wheel of fortune turns

Kgalema Motlanthe was first to arrive, parking his Audi and slipping unnoticed into an empty National Assembly chamber for his last few hours outside the presidential bubble.

Above him in the gallery the speaker’s bay began filling up with representatives of the coalition of the wounded.

In the front row were Jacob Zuma and African National Congress secretary general Gwede Mantashe. Behind them Cyril Ramaphosa, watching as the wheel turned against his old adversary, Thabo Mbeki. He was flanked by his fishing buddy and negotiating partner from the Johannesburg World Trade Centre, Roelf Meyer, who was looking greyer and more close cropped than most will remember him as he chatted with ANC spokesperson Jessie Duarte and mining tycoon Patrice Motsepe.

Tony Yengeni — more than ever the dandy in a frock coat with a diamond lapel pin — sat alongside the hulking KwaZulu-Natal transport minister Bheki Cele, who was pushing the sartorial limits even harder in a bright blue jacket and razor-brimmed fedora.

The DA leader Helen Zille sat alongside Mantashe and had him laughing uproariously once or twice.

Zuma’s elbow was monopolised by the unlikely Peggy Hollander — an utter parliamentary nonentity despite her relatively elevated status as deputy chairperson of the National Council of Provinces — who seemed a strange choice to be seated at the right hand of the little big man himself. Robben Island veteran Ahmed Kathrada, a close friend of Motlanthe, filled out the front row.

As ministers began filing in after their morning caucus meeting, a small group of backbenchers jammed the entrance, to the apparent frustration of the sargeant at arms, singing the struggle classic: ‘My mother was a kitchen girl, my father was a garden boy”. But as more ministers arrived that gave way to a modified gospel chorus, ‘The heart of Zuma is so holy that we can shelter under it”. Ministers and deputy ministers on the front benches were unmoved, chatting and reading as the ANC benches swayed, with only deputy home affairs minister Malusi Gigaba joining in.

With the speaker, Baleka Mbete, sitting in what will soon become her usual bench as deputy president rather than her usual throne at the centre of the house, Chief Justice Pius Langa was escorted in to modest applause. Was it the thought that he was ushering into power the very ANC leaders who had accused him of being a counter-revolutionary that gave his voice that tired, ironic lilt as he detailed the procedures?

Probably not — he often talks that way, but the thought must surely have crossed his mind as the hymn to Zuma rang out.

The DA decision to nominate their own Joe Seremane as president was not popular, either with other opposition parties or with the ANC. Bellows of ‘No, no” came from the other side of the house as it was announced and seconded, but that didn’t stop ANC minister Andrew Mlangeni walking across the floor ahead of the vote to shake the hand of his fellow Robben Islander, in what might have been the one sincere moment of an often brittle and awkward day.

The voting by secret ballot, in makeshift-looking polling booths, was excruciatingly slow, and schoolchildren in the gallery nodded off as ministers filed up in alphabetical order. The roll call was a reminder of who wasn’t there: public administration minister Geraldine Fraser Moleketi and her husband, deputy finance minister Jabu Moleketi, who had just resigned, Ngconde Balfour who was AWOL, Manto Tshabala-Msimang who was in uncharacteristically dour black and who seemed to arrive only after the ballot.

Trevor Manuel watched the procession from his front-row bench, with his head cocked at its usual rightward angle.

When the votes were counted and lunch digested Motlanthe had 261 votes to Seremane’s 50, 41 ballots had been spoiled, all — or almost all — by opposition ministers.

That left only the speeches. Ben Martins was delivering Motlanthe’s curriculum vitae in rote fashion until he was interrupted by Mangosuthu Buthelezi on a point of order to object at his use of the term ”Comrade Kgalema” for the president-elect. ‘Most of our problems spring from ignoring these things,” he insisted, rather ludicrously in the circumstances.

There followed the long parade of opposition ministers who opted for one of three strategies: call on Motlanthe to provide strong, reassuring leadership, get a pre-election jab in at the DA for putting up Seremane, or bid for a job.

Themba Godi, of the PAC splinter party — the ACP — took the latter strategy furthest, calling for a ‘government of all the talents”, while it was Pieter Mulder of the Freedom Front Plus who delivered the sharpest dig at his much bigger competitors for the white vote. ‘We thought it opportunistic of the DA to nominate Seremane when from within the ranks of the DA he could get only 6% of the vote at a leadership election,” Mulder said.

He went on to offer a parable that the Zuma-ultras of the Youth League will no doubt be repeating: a group of trekkers and their wagon are set upon by lions at night and hastily harness their oxen. As it grows light they realise that they have harnessed one of the lions in error. ‘It is one thing to harness a lion, but how do you get it out of harness? Does the ANC know how to unharness a lion, if necessary?” Mulder asked.

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