Mpumalanga ANC chairperson David Mabuza is all about the numbers.
At the very beginning of his political career, when Mabuza was provincial education minister, he was implicated in a 1998 matric results-rigging scandal after Mpumalanga’s pass rate increased from 51% to 71%.
Most recently, his small province’s ANC membership experienced phenomenal growth that will ensure it takes the second-largest delegation — 736 members — to the party’s national conference, which starts on December 16.
Between these bookends is a catalogue of allegations: corrupt activity linked to government tenders, assassination plots, vote rigging at ANC conferences, sophisticated patronage networks that feed off the state and consolidate his power in the province, and a ruthless streak that has caused considerable leadership churn in both the ANC and the provincial government.
The list is as long as Mabuza’s apparent reach. “He has everything in the province under tight control, including the police,” says Mathews Phosa, his one-time ally turned fierce enemy. “This is why he has never been properly investigated or prosecuted.”
Lassy Chiwayo, who unsuccessfully ran against Mabuza for the position of ANC provincial chairperson in 2008, described Mabuza as someone who “leads the dark forces and works in the shadows”.
Mabuza, described as a tactician par excellence, appears to have kept his ostensible allies in the dark about his motives in the ANC’s election race. Whereas “premier leaguers” such as Ace Magashule in the Free State have whipped their provinces towards an outright majority in support of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Mabuza has worked the “unity” candidate angle — leaving everyone guessing how Mpumalanga delegates will vote.
In private, Mabuza has assured Dlamini-Zuma lobbyists that he is with them, one organiser said: “We speak to DD [Mabuza] every week and we are confident of Mpumalanga’s votes.” But in public, Mabuza retains a poker face, his cards clutched to his chest tighter than a two-sizes-too-small bustier. The results from the Mpumalanga nomination process saw 123 nominations for Dlamini-Zuma, 117 for Cyril Ramaphosa and 223 votes for “unity”.
“Unity” of the ANC is the line that Mabuza has been peddling publicly — but it comes with the proposition that the Mpumalanga premier fills the ANC’s deputy president position.
A Ramaphosa lobbyist said that Mabuza not coming out publicly for Dlamini-Zuma amounted to a “betrayal of the premier league” because it “dislodged” the bloc’s hegemony and the perception that they controlled the numbers.
“I don’t think they will ever forgive DD,” said the lobbyist.
Another Ramaphosa lobbyist who has been campaigning in Mpumalanga believes Mabuza’s ploy to further his own political career has led to him “overplaying his hand”.
“He has lost control of the province to some extent; some of the branches are manufactured and many of our guys there would have put ‘unity’ [as their preferred candidate] but they will not come out for NDZ [Dlamini-Zuma],” said the Ramaphosa lobbyist.
Whether this is pre-election bluster or cold analysis, Mabuza remains a survivor. He was fired twice from the Mpumalanga provincial government, including in 1998 following the matric scandal, but returned. He claims to have survived a poisoning attempt and has dubbed himself The Cat (with nine political lives).
There are other nicknames for him. Jacques Modipane, who was installed as Mpumalanga finance minister in 1994, describes him as “Joseph Stalin” because of the way “Stalin operated and liquidated his opponents like Trotsky”.
James Nkambule, the former ANC and Congress of the People leader who died a few years ago after being poisoned, blamed Mabuza for many of the political assassinations in the province — Phosa counts 17 since Mabuza became premier in 2008 — and referred to him as “the crocodile”.
Another ANC member in the province says Mabuza was known as “De Kock” — a reference to Eugene de Kock, the apartheid police colonel, torturer and assassin.
His supporters are quick to defend his innocence against claims of skulduggery. ANC provincial secretary Mandla Ndlovu says none of the allegations of murder or corruption levelled against Mabuza has stuck, “despite several investigations”.
“I’ve heard about these political killings in the province but I have never been able to understand what reasons would be behind the chairperson of the province murdering ordinary people,” said Ndlovu.
Describing Mabuza as a “hands-on leader” with “a good heart who doesn’t want to see anyone with an empty stomach”, Ndlovu said the provincial chairperson knew “everything that is happening in the ANC office. He knows exactly what is happening in the province and all the key leaders in the organisation.”
Several ANC members from outside Mpumalanga say they were not aware of Mabuza being a political activist in the 1980s and 1990s, despite working with others from the province, including Jackson Mthembu and Fish Mahlalela.
Phosa said he had recruited Mabuza into an underground cell before going into exile and never heard of, or from, him again until he returned in the early 1990s.
Modipane and Phosa say they were “warned” about Mabuza being a police spy in the 1980s and to “not make contact with him” — an allegation that led the premier to take Phosa to court in an unsuccessful defamation case.
Chiwayo accuses Mabuza of being “directly or indirectly responsible for the killing of Jimmy Mohlala”, the Mbombela municipal speaker who exposed corruption linked to the city’s R1‑billion World Cup 2010 stadium. He was gunned down in his driveway and his wife and children were later arrested and tortured in an alleged attempt to beat a confession out of them.
Ndlovu said, if Mohlala had to be removed, the “chairperson of the province could have easily used internal ANC procedure to recall him — why kill him?”
Arts and culture spokesperson Sammy Mphatlanyane was also allegedly killed because of his links to World Cup whistle-blowing in the province.
Before that, in 2008, Govan Mbeki municipality deputy mayor Thandi Mtsweni was shot dead after launching an investigation into tender irregularities. Six suspects, including the municipality’s new mayor, Sipho Nkosi, were arrested. Nkosi was later released because of a lack of evidence. That year, Bushbuckridge mayor Milton Morema was arrested in connection with the murder of a teacher and an alleged hitman, but the case was eventually struck off the roll because of a lack of evidence.
Such was the frequency of deaths in Mpumalanga that satirical website Hayibo wrote in 2010: “As allegations mount of political assassinations in Mpumalanga, the local ANC branch has offered its condolences to the family of a business rival who committed suicide yesterday by shooting himself in the back 15 times from a passing car.
“‘We deeply regret the passing of Comrade Whistleblower Vilakazi,’ said spokesman Caligula ‘The Hammer’ Mbete. ‘To gun himself down like that while walking to the café to buy milk — well, no one saw it coming. Least of all himself.’”
None of the deaths has stuck to DD, which his critics attribute to his control of the police in Mpumalanga.
Modipane said he had pushed for Mabuza, then a provincial South African Democratic Teachers Union leader, to be included in Phosa’s first provincial Cabinet.
Phosa remembers the man who would eventually plot the downfall of his successor, Ndaweni Mahlangu, as part of the Nando’s Club — so named because they used to meet at the franchise in Mbombela (Nelspruit) — arriving for the meeting to discuss his 1994 posting in a “rusty old van from the rural areas”.
Mabuza entrenched himself in the province when then-president Thabo Mbeki was purging perceived threats to his power. Said Modipane: “Mabuza knows how to manoeuvre and when Mbeki started going after the big three — Phosa, Tokyo Sexwale and Cyril Ramaphosa — we were hit very hard in Mpumalanga. A whole layer of leadership was lost to the ANC and that is when Mabuza manoeuvred into power.”
Both supporters and critics say he is a “skilful operator” who then used every opportunity and every careerist and kleptocratic impulse in the ANC to further his own ends.
It would take a gambling man to bet against Nasrec being the beginning of the end of “The Cat”, however.