Mantashing his way to the top

Mantash (verb): To state a categorical opinion, only to change your mind and state a completely different opinion later on. Admitted into the South African lexicon after ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe criticised President Jacob Zuma’s midnight Cabinet reshuffle and the sacking of finance minister Pravin Gordhan in March, before performing a 180° turn a few days later. Used by Economic Freedom Fighters head Julius Malema to attack supine ANC leaders unable to rein in a self-aggrandising president. Not advisable to use in the presence of a sometimes cantankerous secretary general of the ANC.

The introduction of “Mantash” into everyday parlance illustrates the unenviable position the ANC’s “chief operations officer” has been stuck in for a large part of his 10-year tenure: between an mbokodo eroding the mores of an increasingly corrupted party and the hard place of having to defend this to a sceptical electorate.

“Gwede is disciplined, so he will defend the ANC to the end, but there is a significant discrepancy between what he says on behalf of the top six and the national working committee [NWC] … and what he believes in,” says a South African Communist Party (SACP) politburo member.

This view is shared by a former ANC national executive member who remembers how Mantashe and then ANC deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe had led the argument against the 2008 recall of Thabo Mbeki: “They failed, and then Gwede was sent out to deliver the news. He didn’t agree with the decision, but he did it.”

The Mail & Guardian spoke to 11 people, including members of trade union federation Cosatu, the SACP, the ANC and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). They all agreed that, over a career that has taken him from coal miner to chief executive of the continent’s oldest liberation movement, Mantashe has been consistent in his behaviour.

“Gwede relishes rigorous debate and it can sometimes take months to convince him, but once an organisational position has been adopted, he will abide by it,” said a former NUM organiser who worked with Mantashe in the 1990s.

He recalls a Mantashe so willing to debate that he would say: “I am a solution looking for problems.”

The politburo member said this trait has sometimes led Mantashe to be “overly protective of the ANC”.

Mantashe’s approach was more likely to be seen as contradictory and as vacillation because “the ANC is probably enduring its most difficult period in its entire 114-year history”, said the SACP member. He pointed to the “quagmire of corruption” and evidence that leaders belonging to a faction supporting Zuma had been “captured” by the vulture capitalist Gupta family as being major challenges.

Likewise the conflation of party and state, and the membership accreditation problems and manipulation of numbers that have undermined the legitimacy of various regional and provincial conferences over the years.

These factors have reduced a moribund ANC to a succession of elections, from branch level to national level, to access kleptocratic patronage networks, according to Mantashe’s 2012 organisational report.

“Fundamentally, Gwede is a Marxist, not a national democrat, so it is more difficult and painful for him to manage corruption and abuse of power in public,” said the politburo member.

Mantashe and his predecessor in the secretary general’s office, Motlanthe, have, in their organisational reports to national conferences, warned of the “careerists” joining the movement for self-enrichment. They have recommended developing political education and activism among members during “the decade of the cadre”. But nothing seems to have been done.

ome ANC members believe Man­tashe has sat on the fence, attempting not to be seen to be crossing Zuma while harbouring his own political aspirations in the party. They say that Mantashe had, until recently, coveted the party’s deputy president position.

“At some point, he realised this wasn’t going to work out and so he has settled for the chairperson position, but I don’t think he will be happy there,” said an ANC member.

This year, Mantashe cited ANC succession protocol as the reason deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa should succeed Zuma. “This has made his job of SG [secretary general] even more difficult because it has further alienated Zuma supporters in the NWC who have always felt ‘he is not one of us’,” said an ANC member.

ANC and SACP members have suggested that Mantashe has become isolated in the NWC and the party’s top six because, as a NUM member said: “Gwede is not a diplomatic person. He will say what is on his mind and be critical of you, even if you have supported him — for him it’s about principle, not personality.”

His is an obdurateness that limits leverage in a factional ANC, says former NUM general secretary Frans Baleni: “The serious development of factions within the ANC means people only want to hear what they want to. A perfect example was how [the Zuma] faction at the policy conference refused to have his [Mantashe’s] diagnostic report adopted.”

The diagnostic report was, for many ANC and SACP members who spoke to the M&G, an example of how Mantashe has managed to navigate the debilitating factionalism and alienation in a dysfunctional top six where “the top two very rarely speak to each other”, and of how Mantashe has been “isolated” both organisationally and administratively.

In that report, Mantashe noted the ANC’s “political bankruptcy”, the decline in “our analytical capacity” and the obfuscation of leaders on key issues such as the allegations of “state capture” . He said the ANC had become “dismissive” and “defensive” about the Guptas’ relationship with Zuma and his ANC cronies and that “[i]n the process, we invent ‘white monopoly capital’ as a new phenomenon instead of affirming that its defeat is at the heart of the revolution and the essence of the NDR [national democratic revolution]”.

But Mantashe’s lethargy in leading the development of quality ANC members has arguably contributed to the bloody violence and assassinations in the party.

On Monday Lungisani Mnguni, an ANC KwaZulu-Natal member due to attend the December conference as a branch delegate, was shot dead in Nkanyezini‚ near Pietermaritzburg. He is thought to have been a Ramaphosa supporter.

Mguni is the third ANC member to be killed in the area in the past few months. On Thursday morning, Sthe Mhlongo‚ the deputy secretary of the ANC Youth League in the party’s Moses Mabhida region, was gunned down in his Mpophomeni home, also in the Pietermaritzburg area. Everlast Mkhize was shot after a branch meeting in August.

The province’s 2015 elective conference was recently nullified by the high court in Pietermaritzburg and the appeal against the ruling will be heard later this month.

These kinds of court cases, which follow provincial conferences where the credentials (who qualifies to attend and vote for leaders) and procedures have been questioned, have characterised Zuma’s ANC ship, which is steered by Mantashe.

Earlier this year ANC members threw chairs at each other, during the Eastern Cape’s provincial conference, which saw Oscar Mabuyane elected chairperson. Mabuyane and his faction are understood to support Ramaphosa’s campaign to succeed Zuma as party leader in December.

Supporters of Eastern Cape Premier Phumulo Masualle have applied to the high court in Grahamstown to nullify the outcome. This week, Mantashe submitted an affidavit claiming there was no need for the case to proceed because the applicants had agreed to internal party processes.

Prior to the ANC’s 2012 Manguang elective conference, the Constitutional Court found there were procedural irregularities leading up to the Free State provincial conference that returned Zuma strongman Ace Magashule to the chairmanship position. The court declared the newly formed ANC provincial executive committee’s resolutions invalid and unlawful.

An ANC member in KwaZulu-Natal said a combination of Mantashe harbouring his own political ambitions and his “casual approach to the role of SG” has led to the current situation.

“Much of this could have been avoided if he had done his job properly,” said the member.

He cited instances in 2015 of appeals regarding the party’s eThekwini regional conference and the provincial conference later that year, saying: “We lodged several appeals after the provincial conference and nothing was done. We didn’t even get a response acknowledging receipt from the SG.”

The ANC member said a national task team did later visit the province to meet disaffected parties but never followed up on promises to return.

It has been a tumultuous two terms as secretary general of the ANC for the man born on June 21 1955 in Cala in the Eastern Cape — to which he often returns and with which he has a profound connection. He has had to balance Zuma’s insidious effect on the party with surviving long enough to do his job.

ANC national executive committee member Enoch Godongwana, who attended Matanzima High School with Mantashe, described him as “a noisemaker, even then”. Politics is such a part of Mantashe’s DNA that his four children referred to him as “Com” when they were growing up, says Baleni.

Mantashe worked his way up through the NUM structures, including positions as regional secretary, national organiser and general secretary. He was chairperson of the SACP and served as a councillor in Ekurhuleni after the first local government elections.

He is, by all accounts, an organic intellectual whose keenness for education led him to complete a BCom, honours and master’s degree. The doctorate was put off because of the ANC: “I remember asking him about it,” said Baleni, “and his response was: ‘How can I even find the time to write a proposal when I have Malema at my door and [Zwelinzima] Vavi at my window?’” This was in reference to two former ANC members who eventually left the party and the tripartate alliance because of the internecine power politics at play.

The anecdote is instructive. It reflects the infighting that has consumed the ANC and those who lead it. A former NUM member remembers standing in the same food queue after Mantashe was elected secretary general of the ANC at its 2007 Polokwane elective conference: “I told him that, following on Kgalema’s report [which warned against careerism and self-aggrandisement], now is the ideal time to rebuild the party, provided you don’t get involved in skirmishes. He laughed.”

Mantashe laughs in public a lot less now — a casualty of the skirmishes he has endured over the past decade while running the day-to-day business of an ANC that has been debilitated by Zumafication.

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Niren Tolsi
Niren Tolsi

Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist.

His areas of interest include social justice; citizen mobilisation and state violence; protest; the constitution and the constitutional court and football.

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