Why Mbeki’s right-hand man quit

This week respected government policy head Joel Netshitenzhe stepped down amid a restructuring of the Cabinet that appeared to strengthen the hand of the left.

Mandy Rossouw quizzed Netshitenzhe about what lay behind his decision.

Are your accumulated skills, experience and knowledge no longer needed?
It’s not a question of whether my services are or are no longer needed. There is a process of restructuring taking place in the Presidency which, by the way, has been immensely strengthened by the appointment of two ministers with integrative functions. My understanding is that some of the functions of the policy unit will have to be allocated to the new functions and others may be located elsewhere in the Presidency.

It is in the context of reflections on the new mandate, the new functions and the new structures that we agreed in the Presidency that I could leave. I should emphasise that this discussion had been going on for a few months now and that the agreement was reached some three weeks ago.

Your resignation was welcomed by the Young Communist League (YCL), which described you as “the personification of the co-option of our cadres by capital”. Your comment?
The statement by the Gauteng YCL is way beyond the pale. One can say with confidence that this is a lone voice that does not reflect reality, nor even the views of either the SACP or Cosatu.

The Congress of the People (Cope) said you were “stripped of authority” by the ministerial cluster reshuffle. Do you agree?
This is highly speculative and not informed by facts. This is one unfortunate part of our political discourse, generally, where everyone seems to have succumbed to the tyranny of the sound bite — so we reduce complex phenomena into quotable quotes.

The cluster system does not supplant the role of the Presidency, which is to ensure coordination, policy coherence and strategic leadership.

As one of the few senior presidency officials from Thabo Mbeki’s term, did you feel alienated by the new government leaders?
The new set of leaders that you refer to are, in the first instance, leaders of the ANC. They are colleagues and comrades I interact with in various capacities, both in the conceptualisation of policy and in its translation into government programmes, so there wasn’t any sense of alienation. The approach of this administration is informed by the principles of continuity and change — what I prefer to refer to as “continuity of change” in the sense that with experience we will always seek to perform better.

Did you intend to stay in your position until the end of your term? And when did you decide to leave?
I had made it clear to the leadership that both as a public servant and as a member of the ANC I saw it as my responsibility, and that of my colleagues in management in government generally, to ensure that the new administration was able to hit the ground running. So, professionally (and for me also politically), management of the transition was a critical obligation.

In 2006 my contract was extended to January 2011 because I was open to assisting not only in managing the transition, but also in the setting up of any new structures that would service the new administration. But it was always understood that this would depend on the speed with which we were able to do this and the definition of functions thereafter.

What role do you still hope to play in the ANC given your position as a member of the ANC national executive committee (NEC)?
I have been asked to serve in NEC subcommittees, such as political education, communications and economic transformation. I am also deployed in Gauteng.

Are you concerned about the perceived increasing push from the “left” to assert its influence?
One is tempted to ask the question: “What is left?” As far as I know, the ANC is a disciplined force of the left. We seek to create a national democratic society informed by the best attributes of a developmental state and those of social democracy. In the context of the challenges facing our society and the realities of the domestic and global balance of forces, I cannot imagine anything more left than this.

Were your recent comments about the ANC “micro-managing” government part of your exit strategy?
Not at all. If you look closely at what I was saying there, you will find that most of this has been said by many leaders of the ANC, including the president.

Further, in the presentations that I have made in various forums, both in the recent past and before Polokwane, I have always sought to raise these kinds of issues. Debate of serious conceptual issues is the lifeblood of the ANC.

What will you do now?
This is a matter that one [has to reflect] on. In these circumstances one has to [find a] balance between the things that one would really want to do and the fact that one also has to have some security of income.

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