Mantashe tiptoes the line on Zuma

Feeling the heat: ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe has found it increasingly difficult to defend ­President Jacob Zuma in the wake of the Constitutional Court judgment on Nkandla. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Feeling the heat: ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe has found it increasingly difficult to defend ­President Jacob Zuma in the wake of the Constitutional Court judgment on Nkandla. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

If there is anyone in the ANC who is feeling the heat of the aftermath of the Constitutional Court’s judgment on Nkandla, it is the party’s secretary general, Gwede Mantashe.

The former trade unionist and the ANC’s “chief executive” finds himself stuck between a rock and a hard place; he is compelled to toe the party line and defend the ANC and President Jacob Zuma, yet struggles to contain his frustration at the president’s unconstitutional behaviour.

The ANC’s top six officials and its national working committee resolved to accept Zuma’s apology after the damning court ruling, which found the president had failed to uphold, defend and respect the Constitution when he didn’t comply with the public protector’s finding that he had to repay a portion of the taxpayers’ money spent on nonessential upgrades at his Nkandla home.

As party boss, Mantashe is forced to articulate the party’s position on the matter, even though he does not agree with Zuma. What complicates matters is that he is a central committee member of the South African Communist Party, which said Zuma’s apology was not enough, implying that he must step down.

It’s an open secret that Mantashe has lost patience with Zuma and there’s little doubt that, if he had his way, he would long ago have shown the president the door.

His most recent utterances testify to the fact that Mantashe is no longer prepared to go out of his way to defend Zuma, as he has done so blindly over the past few years.

Take for example his statement this past Sunday. Speaking at the 23rd commemoration of the death of Chris Hani, the former general secretary of the SACP, Mantashe condemned the unconditional defence of Zuma by those who do not want him to step down as president.

That statement speaks volumes about Mantashe’s dissatisfaction with the president, the man he would previously not hesitate to defend.

A few years ago, Mantashe publicly declared that Zuma must be defended at all costs because he was the symbol of the ANC and that an attack on him was an assault on the ruling party as a whole.
He said at the time that the attacks on Zuma were akin to crushing a snake’s head to immobilise the rest of its body.

Fast forward to 2016 and Mantashe has changed his tune to say that ANC members were not duty-bound to defend Zuma. He would rather have them defend the organisation in which Zuma could take refuge.

It was reported this week that Mantashe said the relentless defending of Zuma only weakened him further and made him vulnerable.

“Once you isolate him [Zuma] and say he must be defended, you are even inviting an attack on him,” Mantashe reportedly said.

Not that there is no sense in what Mantashe said – but it is intriguing how he has shifted from being a vocal Zuma supporter to one of his most vociferous critics, albeit that the criticism is carefully couched so as not to damage the party.

Mantashe and Zuma have tried hard to present a united front in public, but there are serious tensions between them, with Mantashe confiding to his close allies that he is tired of defending the indefensible.

Zuma and his supporters in the ANC’s national executive committee have made it clear to Mantashe that they were not impressed with his public rebuke of the president.

Mantashe is one of the few ANC leaders who objected to the firing of Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister in December and the appointment of the unknown backbencher Des van Rooyen to the highly influential post. Zuma was pressured to reverse his decision after four days and replaced Van Rooyen with Pravin Gordhan.

Mantashe is also spearheading the ANC’s investigation into allegations of state capture by Zuma’s friends, the Gupta brothers. This probe is seen as a direct challenge to Zuma.

Among other things, the ANC will investigate allegations that the Guptas had offered the deputy finance minister, Mcebisi Jonas, the job to replace Nene, on condition that he do their bidding to grease deals they could benefit from.

Mantashe also showed Zuma the middle finger when he publicly lambasted the conduct of the elite crime-fighting unit, the Hawks, which has been investigating Gordhan’s role in relation to the so-called rogue unit in the South African Revenue Services. The case against Gordhan was opened by tax boss Tom Moyane, who is a close Zuma ally.

Gordhan and Nene have both been reluctant to put billions of rands into projects that seem to be close to Zuma’s heart, such as the costly nuclear-build programme.

Asked to respond to questions on calls for Zuma to step down, Mantashe says this is not his call to make, but the ANC’s. He would usually be quick to dismiss such a question – the fact that he did not is perhaps proof of the deepening tensions between himself and Zuma.

But, though not agreeing with Zuma, Mantashe has been careful to ensure he does not speak the language of opposition parties and some ANC veterans who are demanding that Zuma step down. Although fully aware that people are fast losing trust in the ANC, Mantashe believes the party cannot be dictated to by the opposition, civil society or its former leaders on how to deal with the crisis triggered by the Constitutional Court judgment against the president.

Matuma Letsoalo

Matuma Letsoalo

Matuma Letsoalo is the political editor of the Mail & Guardian. He joined the newspaper in 2003 and has won numerous awards since then, including the regional award for Vodacom Journalist of the Year in the economics and finance category in 2015, SA Journalist of the Year in 2011, the Mondi Shanduka SA Story of the Year award in 2008 and CNN African Journalist of the Year – MKO Abiola Print Journalism in 2004. Read more from Matuma Letsoalo

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