‘Dark horse’ Mabuza in succession race

Watch this space: Despite his low profile, David Mabuza is seen as highly influential in the ANC. (Herman Verwey/City Press/Gallo Images)

Watch this space: Despite his low profile, David Mabuza is seen as highly influential in the ANC. (Herman Verwey/City Press/Gallo Images)

“The cat is back. Know that the cat is back … the mice are going to run,” declared Mpumalanga Premier David Mabuza when he returned to his Riverside office building in Mbombela in November 2015, after being on sick leave for almost four months.

Mabuza’s warning appears not only to have been directed at his detractors in the province, but also at all his political opponents in the ANC who had all but written him off as a player in the party’s succession battle.

His ill health, had it continued, would have dealt a devastating blow to the Jacob Zuma-aligned faction in the ANC known as the premier league, which consists of Mabuza, Free State Premier Ace Magashule and North West Premier Supra Mahumapelo.

Since his return to office 14 months ago, Mabuza has made his presence felt in the country’s political corridors. His name is being mentioned as the ideal candidate for party deputy president in almost every slate being distributed by lobbyists to ANC members in branches across the country.

It is understood that lobbyists for both ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa and outgoing African Union Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma have held talks with Mabuza to be included on their slates as deputy president. The two are seen as frontrunners to fill the ANC’s hot seat in December, but Mabuza could still emerge as a dark horse.

There is talk that key players in the ANC Youth League, including its president, Collen Maine, are pushing hard for Mabuza to be elected the next ANC president in December and the country’s number one in 2019.

Born in the farming town of Brondal in Mathafeni 57 years ago, Mabuza is seen as one of the country’s most influential yet low-profile ANC politicians. Love him or hate him, the one-time Lungisani Secondary School principal is going to be one of the key players to watch in the build-up to the ANC national conference in Gauteng in December.

A strategist of note, Mabuza’s inclusion on different lists as ANC president or deputy president must have taken even those in his camp by surprise. Previously a close ally of former president Thabo Mbeki, Mabuza has been careful to keep Zuma close to him since being elected ANC chairperson in 2008.

Former Mpumalanga youth league boss and ANC treasurer James Nkambule at one point accused Mabuza of “buying” the premiership by donating R400 000 towards Zuma’s wedding in 2008.

An ANC leader who did not want to be named said Mabuza’s political survival could be attributed to his ability to establish huge patronage networks.

From time to time, according to ANC insiders, Mabuza spends time at his Barberton farm playing chess or pool by himself to exercise his mind.

This is the same farm from which R4‑million allegedly went missing in 2010 — although the provincial organised crime unit insisted that the case in question involved the theft of only R1 200.

The ANC leader who spoke to the Mail & Guardian said: “He is a good strategist behind the scenes. He has good abilities of mobilisation and strategy. He has always been far ahead of his peers. When you plan a conference today, he is already planning for the next one. Even if you can look at the Mangaung thing now, you can see he was running that thing for the premier league.

“Now it is becoming clear to everyone that he was running this thing for himself … All these years he has been plotting this. And him being part of the premier league has given him access to structures across the country. By the time the others woke up, he was already far ahead,” said the ANC source.

Maine, who now seems to visit Mpumalanga more often than his own home province of North West, this week described Mabuza as a humble but hard-working leader.

“I have known him [Mabuza] for a very long time. But I became close to him after my election as [youth league] president. He is humble and dedicated to serve the people. He has committed his time to make sure the ANC remains strong in Mpumalanga.

“Mpumalanga, in my view, is one of the best-performing provinces of the ANC under his leadership,” said Maine, who is lobbying for Mabuza.

Maine said the fact that the ANC won all the Mpumalanga municipalities without having to enter into coalitions indicates that Mabuza is a good leader and a people’s person.

“He allows space for comrades to engage with him. He does not behave like some leaders, who behave like they own the monopoly on wisdom. Unlike other leaders, he does not talk too much. He speaks where it is necessary. He always rises above petty politics. He is a unifier. The ANC is fortunate to have people with that character,” said Maine.

Another thing that makes Mabuza popular with many ANC branches countrywide, said Maine, is that he is always prepared to lend a helping hand financially and otherwise.

“He sends volunteers to ANC events and he assists the ANC with [financial] resources. He is always assisting. He contributed a lot, even during the ANC Siyanqoba rally in North West. He appeals to many because he always assists,” said Maine.

Mahumapelo described Mabuza as a sober leader who is objective and hard-working. “No event of the ANC passes without him contributing,”
he said.

But not everyone is impressed with Mabuza. Former ANC treasurer Mathews Phosa, who was Mpumalanga premier in the 1990s when Mabuza was education MEC, said he did not believe Mabuza would make a good national leader.

“People will always remember that, on his watch, matric results were cooked for the first time,” said Phosa.

In 2014, Mabuza came in for flak for splurging R5‑million on three luxury cars for his use in one year. One was bought just weeks after Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan announced measures to curb government spending. Mabuza’s office defended the move, saying the multiple purchases were necessary because the cars were experiencing a series of mechanical faults.

The auditor general’s 2015-2016 report uncovered irregular expenditure of R4‑billion in the Mpumalanga provincial government. The bulk of this was traced to the health and human settlements departments.

But Mahumapelo defended Mabuza, saying he had remained a strong leader despite being accused of corruption and other misdeeds.

“He went through many challenges in the organisation. There were accusations, concoctions, people manipulated things against him. He got poisoned and nearly died. I saw him in hospital when he was dying. But he remains forgiving and he is not bitter,” he said, referring to speculation about Mabuza’s illness in 2015. — Additional reporting by Dineo Bendile

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