Who really runs the country?

2014-05-25 16:00

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As President Jacob Zuma was inaugurated yesterday, Ferial Haffajee tells us who she thinks the real Number 1 is

Last year, I realised that the country is, in fact, run by ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe.

A planeload of Indian guests of the resident Gupta family landed at Waterkloof. That was illegal. But I expected that it would be blustered away by the state, as was common practice.

Instead, Mantashe was irked by the impact of the incident on South African sovereignty – the trip in, the bombast of the hosts, the landing and the police escorts all symbolised that the nation state could be hawked for a price.

As a communist and nationalist, this obviously got up Mantashe’s nose and he issued a scathing riposte.

Next thing, the landing was termed “Guptagate” and it turned into a good and proper scandal. A full-scale ministerial inquiry was held, which yielded the now iconic term “Number 1” when protocol bureaucrat Bruce Koloane pointed out from where the instruction to land had emanated.

Waterkloof will never be so abused again. It was an unprecedented moment.

There was another one this week when Mantashe ­co-hosted a conference at Parliament to announce the ANC members of Parliament. He sat there, looking for all the world like a prime minister, which is the role I believe he fulfils in South Africa.

Earlier this year, the Mail & Guardian carried a detailed article on how Mantashe makes Cabinet appointments with President Jacob Zuma. He will probably be doing so again this afternoon and my guess is that he plays more than a simple advisory role.

I think Mantashe makes the choices in conjunction with the national executive committee. In the first term of the Zuma administration, the locus of government control shifted to Luthuli House, the ANC’s headquarters.

It is more powerful than the Union Buildings, which has become a purely administrative (and not a political) centre.

If you happen to go to the Johannesburg CBD on a Monday when the ANC holds its meetings, it is like a Cabinet meeting, with lines of limousines and attendant police escorts.

The weekly briefings are held in a grand press room festooned with party banners. They carry all the authority of occasions of state.

The ANC secretary-general calls more shots than he’d like us to think. Picture: Felix Dlangamandla/Foto24

Mantashe, with his goatee and gruff voice, is not simply a party functionary, but the most powerful man in the country.

At only 59 years old, he is young by ANC leadership standards and it would not be surprising if he made a challenge for president in the future.

A street fighter, he easily saw off an attempt to dethrone him by the young lions, then led by Julius Malema, who wanted to install Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula as party chief to stage a generational coup. That failed miserably.

He was also the hangman who delivered the bad news to former president Thabo Mbeki ahead of his ouster in 2008. These two battles have given him an aura of power.

I think it’s good that he acted as a bulwark against cronyism in the Guptagate affair as it may be a deterrent to the descent to sleaze in the second half of the Zuma administration.

I suspect Mantashe also put the screws on President Zuma’s aim to make his cousin Deebo Mzobe’s organisation, Masibambisane, the billion-rand recipient of agricultural state support for small farmers.

Mantashe is a farmer and probably saw right through the enrichment plan, which had almost been inked by the state.

In addition, the rise of Mantashe has put an end to the fractious two centres of power that bedevilled Mbeki, who famously believed the governing party should be “better smaller but better”. There is one centre now and it has lent a greater cohesion to governing power.

Previously, government and party pulled in different directions and the different bits of the Tripartite Alliance were on a permanent war footing.

Business may not like it (and they don’t), but the path is state led (as opposed to market led) and quite obviously Chinese in its ambit and ambition.

Mantashe is also a politburo member of the SA Communist Party (SACP) and his policy hand is clear across the state.

The rise of Luthuli House and the accession of Mantashe as a quasi-prime minister have conflated party and state almost completely.

A book is yet to be written on the varied instances when the state aided the governing party’s election effort this year.

In addition, Mantashe’s two hats of power can give the SACP more influence than its size would ordinarily determine.

Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande is a passionate educationist, but his positions can make the academic sector feel hidebound because they are so dogmatic.

The public works department has not been fixed by the dual SACP leadership of Thulas Nxesi and Jeremy Cronin, but they were never chided.

And being a former general-secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers has meant that Mantashe, and therefore the ANC, has been blind to the reshaping of labour relations on the mines.

So we sit with nobody in the governing party knowing how to deal with the significance of the new labour power in the form of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union.

With a partisan Mantashe at the helm, the ANC’s efforts at rekindling unity in Cosatu have failed miserably and the federation is floundering.

It can’t last beyond next year at this rate and that is a tragedy for worker unity.

Either way, the “SG” or “Uncle Gweezy”, as Mantashe is affectionately known, is an important and influential person to watch over the next five years.

We did not inaugurate one president yesterday, but an amalgamation of both – what one clever scribe has called “President Zumantashe”.

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