The ANC takes the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture very seriously, it seems. Its future as a viable governing party may well be what is at stake. Not only that, but also the integrity of South Africa’s systems of governance and accountability. As the sometimes alarming evidence gushes out of the mouths of witness after witness, it is clear how close we came — how close we may still be — to the precipice.
Recent events show this realisation may have belatedly dawned on the ANC, and the party is ready to defend the commission against a growing number of desperados who rightly see it, and the legal processes it will unleash, as the possible end of their many taxpayer-funded free lunches.
First, the ANC came out guns at the ready to fight off the threats of its own desperate spawn in the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), who had staged “protests” outside the conference venue at Hill on Empire in Parktown, Johannesburg, during the two days of Minister Pravin Gordhan’s appearance at the commission.
The party’s leadership even slapped down their own members, who — fearing what the process means for them or their sponsors — have taken pot shots at Zondo’s investigation.
Then the party committed to making at least four submissions to the commission to give its own perspectives on state capture.
The first of these was by ANC national chairperson Gwede Mantashe this week. Mantashe limited himself to answering the various allegations made by representatives of South Africa’s four big banks when they came before the commission. More importantly, he was attempting to explain the party’s aborted attempts to intervene when the banks closed the transactional accounts of the Gupta family and its companies in 2016.
Mantashe will return with a second “counter submission” in the future, to address himself to criticisms raised by ANC veteran and former minister Barbara Hogan, especially regarding the operation of the party’s deployment system. Mantashe, it seems, has the job of giving these submissions in part because he was secretary general for 10 years, running the day-to-day business of the party. In fact, his tenure coincided neatly with the period of the development and implementation of the Gupta state capture project (2007-2017).
His deputy in office during that time, Jessie Duarte, will also appear before Zondo, although curiously Mantashe revealed that this would be to answer Hogan’s allegations that she (Duarte) was central to the state capture project. This seems to be a rather personal concern, and Duarte could have been invited to make a submission to Zondo in her own capacity (as many senior ANC figures have). That she is being allowed to mount her self-defence in the name of the party illustrates neatly the problem the ANC has with the Zondo commission and even beyond. Mantashe was there to explain and defend, Duarte will be coming to explain and defend. This is a party constantly on the defensive, so much so that it has grown comfortable with that stance.
The ANC does not really know how to be on the front foot on any issue. It will make four submissions to a commission that it resolved to establish, and three of them will be dictated by what others have said about it or its office-bearers. I don’t imagine any other governing party tolerating this, certainly not in an election year.
One of former president Jacob Zuma’s most profound legacies, it seems, was to recreate the ANC as a party of reaction and defence, a backfoot player. It constantly cedes the initiative to the EFF, the Democratic Alliance, the media, the courts and even — as the commission is now showing — its own gatvol members.
By the time President Cyril Ramaphosa sits down to make what is billed as the party’s main submission, he will be doing little more than responding, explaining, deflecting, clarifying, rejecting with contempt, and categorically denying.
Indeed, the ANC must still answer the question why, having decided that a judicial commission of inquiry was a good thing, it didn’t then place itself first in the queue to give evidence. It is astounding that a party that has been in power for 25 years has never learned the value of telling its story first.
The result, predictably, is that, although the ANC is undoubtedly the author of the era of state capture, it is not the ANC’s narrative that we
The country is glued to the testimony of an endless stream of disgruntled men and women, people with no mandate, who rather come with heavy burdens and axes to grind; wounded, belittled, bewildered and embittered, these comrades — whether they intend to or not — will bury the ANC under the corrosive heap of the Zuma project, only because they alone are willing to name the problem. Not Mantashe or Duarte or Ramaphosa, but Hogan, Gordhan, Mcebisi Jonas, Themba Maseko and Cheryl Carolus.
That is why, in the week in which the party of government, the party that gave us the commission, came to speak, it is not its words nor its testimony that we remember, but that of former Zuma minister Ngoako Ramatlhodi. Twice fired by his boss at the behest of the Guptas because he refused to do their bidding, Ramatlhodi went to the commission this week and named the problem.
Freely admitting from the very outset his role in bringing Zuma to power — something Mantashe pointedly failed to do — Ramatlhodi told the commission that the most unforgivable thing about the former president’s destructive journey through the state was that he had “auctioned his executive authority” to the Guptas.
He did so with the ANC watching, “paralysed” and seemingly brain-dead.
One doubts that even Ramaphosa, when he makes his attempt to bat away responsibility, will have the courage — or the mandate — to put it quite that succinctly.
Vukani Mde is a partner at LEFTHOOK, a Johannesburg-based research and strategy consultancy