/ 18 December 2017

Mbete looks for greener pastures

Out of the box: Baleka Mbete has been assured she may use her discretion in deciding whether to allow a secret ballot for President Jacob Zuma’s eighth motion of no confidence.
Out of the box: Baleka Mbete has been assured she may use her discretion in deciding whether to allow a secret ballot for President Jacob Zuma’s eighth motion of no confidence.

The sun appears to be setting on outgoing ANC chairperson Baleka Mbete’s working relationship with President Jacob Zuma — a relationship that has been characterised by self-sacrifice, empty promises and betrayal.

On Saturday, Mbete announced that she will back deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa to become the next president at the party’s 54th national elective conference.

“We publicly endorse comrade Cyril Ramaphosa. We have been talking and we have agreed on how to approach the issue of maximising unity in the organisation,” she said.

Her comments were made in spite of the fact that she was running her own presidential campaign. Although she hadn’t been nominated by any province, she still had a chance of receiving a nomination from the conference floor.

A year ago, one would have been hard-pressed to find Mbete making a declaration that went so starkly against Zuma. Then, Mbete was still counted among his closest allies.

During Zuma’s February State of the Nation address in Parliament, Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema hurled a string of insults at Mbete who, in her capacity as National Assembly speaker, threatened to have the EFF removed from the chambers.

“We are not going to allow you to abuse us the whole night. You are scared of Zuma. He used you, he dumped you! He promised you that you were going to be president and you went home and slaughtered a cow,” Malema ranted.

Though the rant appeared to be an example of Malema’s usual conduct in Parliament, an ANC national executive committee member told the Mail & Guardian that the statements contained a kernel of truth. “The old man [Zuma] slaughtered Baleka twice. The time when he put Kgalema [Motlanthe] in [as deputy president] he had promised [the position] to her. And when Cyril came in he had promised her [the position] as well.”

A CR17 lobbyist said Mbete’s endorsement was probably her attempt to be considered as Ramaphosa’s deputy, which would be unlikely to happen because she “didn’t bring the numbers”.

“Her team sees our numbers because they have been trying to meet us. Her team met a couple of our guys to say, can she please be accommodated as deputy? But we had already firmed up Lindiwe [Sisulu],” the lobbyist said.

Mbete’s endorsement of Ramaphosa could also be read as her realising that there is no longer room for her on Zuma’s team. But how did she reach this point?

Last year, the Hlubi in the Eastern Cape held a traditional ceremony for Mbete. She told them that she had been approached by “many comrades” to make herself available for the presidency. It was alleged that the ceremony was preceded by Zuma promising Mbete that she would become his successor. The ANC Women’s League was also believed to be on board with the plan. But, in an interview with the M&G earlier this year, Mbete denied that Zuma had promised her any position.

By January 7 this year it had become clear that plans had changed, when the women’s league openly endorsed Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as its preferred candidate. In the months following that, Zuma made a series of statements detailing Dlamini-Zuma’s leadership strengths, an indication of his support for her.

Mbete was also not considered for a position on the Dlamini-Zuma slate. Unfortunately for Mbete, her realisation that there is no longer any room for her on that team comes at a time when her capabilities as a leader have already been brought into question.

As speaker she fiercely protected Zuma from criticism in Parliament, behaviour that has been read as an effort to remain in his good books, with the promise of a leadership position as a reward.

Because of that she found herself implicated in the Constitutional Court’s ruling on Nkandla, which found that she had failed to execute her duties of holding the executive to account.

In 2014 the Democratic Alliance also brought a motion of no confidence against her, for being biased.

Now, she is fighting for her political future — hence her sudden support for CR17. But it might yet again be a case of too little, too late.