Nobody yet knows who President Jacob Zuma’s surprise appointee, State Security Minister David Mahlobo (42), really is.
There are at least four possibilities, according to sources the Mail & Guardian spoke to this week.
He could be the breath of fresh air needed in a world where unchecked power too often meets savage internecine warfare, bringing spine and conviction to an important post.
He could be the indentured servant of a president who faces a tough term in office, the powerless conduit through which flows sensitive information in one direction and undue political influence in the other.
He could be the advance guard for a powerful provincial leader with ambitions well beyond his current station.
Or he could be the man enjoying his reward after opening up a province full of contracts to key businesspeople close to the president, which in turn filled the war chest for the ruling party’s recent election campaign.
Those are the prevailing theories about the new minister of state security. But the speculation goes deeper and gets wilder than that, because Mahlobo has been – wryly fitting for his job – relatively inconspicuous.
That has some worried.
“State security is an important position in government and my understanding is that it can only be held by somebody very senior in the organisation, not somebody that arrived yesterday,” said a provincial government leader who has worked with Mahlobo.
Former intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils admitted he was “quite surprised at the appointment because of knowing nothing about his background in relation to security and intelligence”. And some of the spies for whom Mahlobo will be responsible predicted he would be “eaten alive”, as ingénus invariably are in their world.
Mahlobo this week became the head of an intelligence community that is by nearly universal agreement rife with factionalism and mutual suspicion, poorly equipped to handle the security of the country and only patchily functional. Foreign spymasters joke about the cost savings achieved by being able to dismantle counterintelligence operations in South Africa, intelligence insiders tell hair-raising stories about serious potential threats going uninvestigated, and the politically connected mutter darkly about their fears of being targeted.
“It is so important to avoid the conflation [of] the political party and the state interest, which is what has beset the state security and intelligence services,” said Kasrils, now an outspoken critic of the government’s handling of the responsibility he once held.
Good things to say
But he has only good things to say about Mahlobo, who worked under him as a director at the department of water affairs and forestry from 2002 until Kasrils left in 2004, and for two years thereafter.
“I found him a likeable and hard-working person,” he said.
A colleague of Mahlobo in the ANC national executive committee (NEC), Mzwandile Masina, agreed. Masina worked closely with him when they were tasked with rebuilding the ANC Youth League last year.
“He is a very humble, down-to-earth and principled person who, over time, has risen through the ranks of the movement,” Masina said.
But in the period between his years at water affairs and now, Mahlobo spent over four years as a bureaucrat, wielding seemingly enormous influence in Mpumalanga, a province legendary for its corruption. The reports are decidedly darker from this time in his career – as head of department (HOD) for co-operative governance and traditional affairs in the province from 2009 until last week.
He was the only department head with VIP protection, including a blue-lights escort, for reasons nobody has ever explained. But several sources concur that it was a time when he acted as a fixer for Mpumalanga Premier David Mabuza.
Service delivery protests
When service delivery protests threatened to overwhelm the province from 2009, Mahlobo’s department bypassed the state security services and hired then communications minister (and former military commander) Siphiwe Nyanda’s private company, GNS Risk Advisory Services, to investigate the causes of the protests.
The final report apparently, and neatly, pointed to three rivals to Mabuza who were also regarded as being anti-Zuma: ANC national treasurer Mathews Phosa, former Mbombela (Nelspruit) mayor Lassy Chiwayo and Fish Mahlalela, who chaired the provincial select committee on public accounts at the time.
Persistent rumours suggested the report pointed to the three, fuelled by claims made publicly by the youth league in the province. But the claims could never be challenged by those fingered as the report was never published – despite the fact that millions of rands were shelled out by the department for it. Sources who were influential at the time claimed procurement processes were flouted in the “emergency expenditure”.
Some say Mahlobo’s promotion is linked to the ambitions of Mpumalanga Premier David Mabuza. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)
Mabuza did not respond to questions sent to him by the M&G concerning these allegations and Nyanda said the work his company did was confidential.
Approached for comment this week, Phosa refused to discuss Mahlobo and the report he commissioned, saying all will be revealed in a book he is working on.
“By the way, someone leaked the whole police file to me. It reads like a movie. You will read my coming book,” he said.
Several sources in the province said Mahlobo’s sudden elevation to the ANC’s powerful NEC at the party’s conference in Mangaung in 2012 came as a surprise to many delegates from Mpumalanga.
One source familiar with the affairs of the province said that Mabuza and Zuma grew increasingly close, and noted that a number of KwaZulu-Natal businesspeople close to Zuma were benefiting from contracts from government departments in Mpumalanga.
One of the former government managers, now with the Economic Freedom Fighters, is Collen Sedibe, who used to work in the co-operative government and finance departments in the province until January this year. He claimed that Mahlobo is being rewarded for ensuring that all the municipal managers were loyal to Mabuza and compliant about giving tenders to preferred businesspeople.
“It’s payback. He was behind the deployment of the municipal managers so they could steal the money used for the elections,” said Sedibe, who arguably has a political motive to discredit Mahlobo, Mabuza and Zuma.
But the province’s municipalities are indisputably in a dire state after Mahlobo’s tenure at co-operative governance. Only two of the province’s 21 municipalities had a clean audit, according to the last available auditor general’s report for municipalities, for the 2011 to 2012 period, and two were placed under administration last year. Three senior figures in the ANC alliance in the province previously told the M&G that municipal managers were forced out if they challenged Mabuza.
But the former leader in the province had another take on the appointment, saying the deployment of Mabuza’s “man in government” to the important ministry of state security served the ambitious premier’s interests in the ANC’s leadership race in 2017. “I think [Mabuza’s] intention is to deal with some of the people who will be his competitors, because he has got an ambition of … having a very senior position in the top six of the ANC.”
Others, too, think Mahlobo’s appointment says more about Mabuza’s future prospects – and current standing – than about the minister himself.
“From HOD to minister?” one Mpumalanga ANC leader said. “The only explanation you can give is that this is David Mabuza’s arrangement.” – Additional reporting by Charles Leonard and Matuma Letsoalo
A succession of patient, strategic moves
David Mahlobo seemed to come out of nowhere to be appointed the Cabinet minister responsible for both keeping the country safe and fighting the battle against an Nkandla report damning of President Jacob Zuma.
But in retrospect, Mahlobo’s rise to power shows a series of either happy coincidences or canny moves.
While working in Pretoria as an obscure functionary in the department of water affairs and forestry, Mahlobo chaired an ANC branch that shares a name (and a rough geographic location) with the official residence of the president in the city, Mahlamba Ndlopfu. There, heavyweights within the party said, he impressed with his running of what is theoretically one of the most crucial structures within a party that attaches great importance to paying one’s dues at a local level.
Once elected to the ANC’s national executive committee (NEC), where a newcomer can disappear into the background, Mahlobo again got to work. By 2013 he had served on subcommittees on peace and stability and organisation building, worked in both Gauteng and the Free State on behalf of the NEC, and was one of three NEC members assigned to “work with” the transition team set up to reform the ANC Youth League after the departure of Julius Malema.
For the 2014 elections he campaigned for the ANC in the Free State and Mpumalanga, sticking, as he invariably seems to do, to ANC doctrine and messaging.
In Mpumalanga he brushed up against the world of information and lies, and suffered at least the appearance of physical threat. The reasons for Mahlobo being assigned a protection detail were never explained, but his name appeared on a “hit list” of dubious origin, related to a cover-up of World Cup construction corruption.
His relationship with Zuma goes back well over a decade. Mahlobo never had the opportunity to align himself with exiled ANC leaders or those who stayed behind, as he was only 18 when the party was unbanned. But his time as a child on the border between KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga did not lack in political volatility.
“KZN was a very violent province,” said Godfrey Ntombela, who headed the University of Zululand student council on which Mahlobo served and would go on to have a long association with him. The war with the apparatus of apartheid was already won, but the ANC-IFP battles were brutal.
“Before we were student activists he grew up in the underground structures of the movement, where he was tried and tested,” said Ntombela. “His father was nearly assassinated. The department he is heading now … where there are problems, people doubting one another, he’ll be able to bring all those individuals together.”
At university Mahlobo was embroiled in turmoil that saw students rampaging across campus – and in advancing a man who would later give him a job.
“JZ [Zuma] was very active on the North Coast then,” said Ntombela. “Together with David [Mahlobo] we played a crucial role in making him the chancellor of the University of Zululand. Before that, [Mangosuthu] Buthelezi was sort of chancellor-for-life. It was a serious contest but we made the votes, so Zuma became chancellor.”
It was an almost entirely symbolic victory for Zuma, but in 2001 symbolic victories were important in KwaZulu-Natal. – Phillip de Wet & Verashni Pillay
Mahlobo exonerates himself
State security minister David Mahlobo joked that “spooks should not be known” but responded frankly to the allegations against him in his previous roles during an interview.
He pointed out that Siphiwe Nyanda’s private company, GNS Risk Advisory Services, was appointed by the Mpumalanga department of co-operative governance and traditional affairs on the “eve of my assumption of duty” as its head. But other sources have noted that Mahlobo did not cancel the problematic contract as accounting officer.
Mahlobo admitted that there were certain deviations from normal procurement processes but that the contract subsequently went through a “normalisation process”.
Nor was he David Mabuza’s lackey in Cabinet, he said. “It’s impossible that a person like myself alone can have such influence.”
Mahlobo also pooh-poohed the idea that he could influence municipal managers to give contracts to influential businesspeople because “they follow government procurement process governed by law”. Plus, the municipal managers of all municipalities are appointed by municipal councils, he said: “I only advise; I don’t make decisions.”
Mahlobo also differed with an account of his role in Jacob Zuma becoming University of Zululand chancellor. “The appointing of chancellors lies with the university council. I was a council member, not even a chair. The nominations went through a ballot, and the president emerged. It would be absurd to think that one man could influence men and women of integrity.” – Verashni Pillay