Newsmaker – Baleka Mbete: Granny. Speaker. President?

2014-06-15 15:01

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National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete would not have formed an ad hoc committee on the Nkandla report had she been in her predecessor’s shoes.

“I don’t think Max [Sisulu] was guilty because he formed an ad hoc committee. No, I just have a different view,” she says.

Speaking to City Press in the lounge of her spacious Northcliff home with its Afro-chic decor and large windows looking out on old jacaranda trees towering above the high perimeter walls, Mbete explains that the ANC had no collective view on this.

But she’s one of the party’s top six officials and it’s hard to think her view doesn’t hold some sway.

Mbete believes Public Protector Thuli Madonsela neither indicated in her report on the R246?million upgrades at President Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla home that Parliament should discuss it, nor that the matters in it were urgent.

By the time Zuma submitted his brief response to the report in April, saying he would respond fully once the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) report was out, it was close to the elections.

“That is a time in the political calendar when, generally speaking, any political party wants to be left alone to focus on the election campaign,” she says.

“Even the Speaker is really part of a political party, just as you’ll find that heads of missions leave their postings to come home and help in the elections campaign.

“So there has to be something very compelling for you to leave [the campaign] to come back to be doing whatever you normally do,” she says.

Mbete says she will consider her options once Zuma responds to the SIU report, as is expected within the next 30 days.

An ad hoc committee is one of the options.

Still, there is a belief in ANC circles that Sisulu was harshly sidelined by ANC officials over the Nkandla issue.

Sisulu, who will be 69 in August, has since – apparently reluctantly – retired, for now. Mbete, who is also ANC chairperson, is four years his junior and now has two jobs.

On top of that, she recently became a grandmother for the first time, and two more little ones are on their way.

A disarmingly cute 15-month-old, her first-born grandchild, is in her arms when she comes down to the lounge for the interview, more than 30 minutes late.

Mbete was deputy speaker for eight years before being appointed Speaker in 2004. About eight months before the end of her term, she became deputy president in Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka’s place after Thabo Mbeki was sacked as president.

She laughs when asked if her reappointment as Speaker came as a surprise. There are even stories about her collapsing when she got the news. “You know what, in the ANC we get deployed, and I got deployed by the president,” she says.

She was ready even for the back benches – although she wouldn’t “celebrate” that sort of deployment. Her adult children were certainly upset at such a prospect.

In 2009, though, she declined to be sworn in as a member of Parliament after it became apparent that Kgalema Motlanthe, not her, would be deputy president.

Rumours that she was angry were “a lie”.

“Those who believed that simply did not know me,” she says. “The story is that I left Parliament angry. I will never say what the issue was.

“Those who know, they know.”

Recent reports about her lobbying for the Constitution to be changed so that she could serve as Zuma’s deputy alongside Cyril Ramaphosa were also untrue.

“I read about that in the papers,” she says. Still, she comes alive when talking about party matters.

Despite being exhausted to the point of being ill, like most of her party colleagues, the former teacher and exile says party work “makes me feel I am home, sort of like it’s where I belong”.

Parliament is “a different vehicle” for political issues, she says.

Opposition politicians like former DA parliamentary leader Tony Leon said she was a bad choice for Speaker because she was too harsh on the opposition and too soft on crooks.

When asked why she supported convicted fraudster Tony Yengeni when he went to Pollsmoor Prison in 2006, she said that his going to jail “wasn’t the right thing”.

Besides, the fraud he committed as a member of the parliamentary committee doing oversight on the Arms Deal happened before her time as Speaker.

Mbete, one of the most powerful women in the party, is considered a candidate for the party presidency.

Is the ANC ready for a female boss, as Zuma proclaimed before the elections last month?

She is hugging a large scatter cushion on which she rested her coffee earlier as we speak about it.

Although the ANC has been home to strong female leaders like Albertina Sisulu, and although it is a progressive organisation, there is “something that happens in a human being” that keeps men from nominating women as presidents, she says.

“I can say that yes, the ANC is ready. Why they are not nominating a woman to be president, I don’t know.”

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