David Mabuza's art of war

2017-12-24 06:04
David Mabuza at the ANC’s elective conference at Nasrec this week. Picture: Tebogo Letsie

David Mabuza at the ANC’s elective conference at Nasrec this week. Picture: Tebogo Letsie

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'Unity' is getting support from the ANC members - David Mabuza

2017-12-17 08:30

News24 Editor Adriaan Basson chats to ANC Mpumalanga chairperson David Mabuza about the success of the 'unity' campaign. Watch.WATCH

New deputy president of the ANC has ascended to power by being a master strategist with an abundance of patience, writes Sizwe sama Yende.

Much has been read into newly elected ANC deputy president David Mabuza’s tendency to play chess solitarily in the bucolic surrounds of his farm and his almost religious study of Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu’s 2 000-year-old book The Art of War.

These habits, according to his allies, have moulded him into a master political strategist who cannot be defeated in the game of politics. He ruthlessly applies these mastered chess tactics and lessons from The Art of War to manipulate his political allies and crush his foes.

This week, he once again proved that he is an enigma who springs surprises. He was expected to be Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s deputy, but ended up being new ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa’s instead. This shift in allegiance left Dlamini-Zuma’s supporters feeling betrayed.

As a former mathematics teacher, Mabuza excels at the numbers game. This skill comes in handy when attempting to predict the outcomes of party conferences, and it has contributed to catapulting him from being a provincial heavyweight to the second most powerful position in the ANC.

Mabuza calculated his ascendency stealthily, never letting on that he wanted to be the deputy president of the ANC and, essentially, the country.

He began by rallying his troops in Mpumalanga last year to increase the ANC membership, which led to Mpumalanga jumping from being the fourth biggest ANC province to the second biggest going into the ANC national conference at Nasrec this past week. The province had 708 delegates.

Mabuza went to the conference with 223 branches from Mpumalanga having nominated “unity” – keeping contenders guessing who these delegates would cast their votes for. These Unity delegates in fact supported Mabuza and were his trump card that greatly influenced the conference results, eventually ending in a mishmash of top six officials from Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma’s slates.

This is where his reading and chess habits worked for him. Dlamini-Zuma’s supporters can blame him for betraying them, but he got what he wanted and ensured that his close allies – Paul Mashatile and Ace Magashule – rose with him.

Mabuza had preached ANC unity and said he favoured an uncontested conference where leaders would be contested by consensus, but he did not withdraw when his proposal did not get traction. He accepted the nomination and used the “undecided” delegates to steer the conference towards his Unity gospel.

Before the conference, he told City Press that Ramaphosa had limited his chances to be engaged because he prematurely announced his preferred top six team. Mabuza raised Dlamini-Zuma’s hopes, even going to the extent of predicting she would win the conference if his consensus proposal was rejected. At this point, he gave the impression that he would support Dlamini-Zuma, but that was not to be. He kept everyone guessing until the last moment.

Preaching unity

Mabuza started preaching unity immediately after the disastrous local government elections in August last year, which saw the ANC losing three important metros – Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay – to DA-led coalitions. He began mending fences with estranged comrades, including former ANC Youth League deputy president Ronald Lamola, who he eventually deployed to key positions in his administration in the name of “practically implementing ANC unity”.

To his credit, he also disbanded a faction – Save Mpumalanga ANC – which dredged up issues of conference rigging, government corruption and also labelled him as an autocrat. Then he brought some members of the Bushbuckridge Residents’ Association back into the ANC. The association had been growing fast in Mpumalanga’s Bushbuckridge area and had snatched five wards from the ANC after the 2016 elections.

When asked about his leadership tactics this week, Mabuza said: “As a leader, you must be hard on yourself … I’ve asked myself the hardest questions. You must also be patient and be able to endure pain.”

Unity is probably the fastest plan he has so far implemented to increase his chances of winning a conference because he usually plans his next move many years in advance.

Indeed, Mabuza’s rise over the past 23 years has been steady, and has involved patience and perseverance through pain – self-inflicted at times – as well as guile and calculation métier.

Senior Mpumalanga ANC politician Jacques Modipane has first-hand knowledge of Mabuza’s ability to be patient. Modipane was the MEC for finance in Mpumalanga’s first democratic cabinet under Mathews Phosa. At the time, Mabuza was the MEC for education.

“That boy is smart,” Modipane said.

The pair had a falling out when Mpumalanga leaders, Modipane said, infuriated national leaders by offering Phosa’s name to stand for deputy president at the ANC’s Mafikeng conference in 1997. That move resulted in the province being overlooked for national executive committee (NEC) positions.

Instead of becoming dejected, Mabuza crouched like a feline (his nickname is The Cat, by the way, but for a different reason) and studied the situation to see where he could find an advantage.

Modipane explains that when former president Thabo Mbeki overlooked seasoned leaders and brought Ndaweni Mahlangu from outside provincial ANC structures to be premier, Mabuza campaigned for the relatively unknown politician to become chairperson. He became Mahlangu’s deputy, a strategic position that he could build on.

When Mbeki brought Thabang Makwetla from outside as premier in 2004, Mabuza also campaigned for him to be chairperson – while he remained a deputy.

In 2008, when Mabuza felt he was ready for the big time, he pounced.

“I was certain he would win the conference when he stood as chairperson. He’s not a fool ... he won it against Lassy Chiwayo,” Modipane said.

Chiwayo said Mabuza approached him as early as 2005 about the 2008 conference.

“He said to me: ‘Comrades are raising our names and I want you to be my deputy.’ I said 2008 was far in the future to already be thinking about a conference. But I gave him my support,” Chiwayo said.

They ended up contesting each other.

The proverbial cat with nine lives

Mabuza does not mind letting comrades rise above him as long as he is able to focus on his end goal. A typical example relates to Energy Minister David Mahlobo. Mabuza supported Mahlobo to become part of the ANC’s NEC during the Mangaung conference in 2012, but he kept quiet about his own ambitions. However, he didn’t stop the provincial executive committee from making a noise about its wish to see him rise to the ANC deputy presidency.

When Mabuza assumed the premiership in 2009, he worked on closing ranks and entrenching himself. He is in his second term as a premier and the first premier in the province to serve two terms. Additionally, this is his third term as provincial chairperson, and he’s also the first one to do this. The last time he was contested in a conference was in 2008. Since then, he has been re-elected unopposed.

Mabuza’s deputy in 2008 was Charles Makola. They had a falling out before the term ended and Mabuza dropped Makola during the next conference. David Dube came in as his deputy in 2012 and, proving that running mates are expendable, Mabuza also dumped Dube.

His relationship with the current deputy, Violet Siwela, has reportedly soured and he will most likely not anoint her as his successor when he vacates his provincial chairperson position. Only Mabuza knows who will take over the fort when he leaves Mpumalanga.

Since becoming premier, Mabuza has, like the proverbial cat with nine lives, survived a multitude of allegations that involve having R14m in cash in his farm house, having a hand in political assassinations, tolerating corruption in his administration, rigging ANC elections and entrenching patronage.

Many ANC insiders say that his close relationship with President Jacob Zuma helped him survive as rivals tried to use these allegations to get rid of him.

Mabuza was laid off work for two months in 2014 after being admitted to hospital to be treated for poisoning. He survived that and came back stronger.

Despite everything, he has ingratiated himself among ordinary people and ANC members by being accessible and generous. In the past, long queues were often
seen outside his house as people took turns to present their problems to him. His DD Mabuza Foundation has taken over the responsibility of helping the needy, so he no longer has people waiting to speak to him at his home.

If Mabuza continues to play chess alone, continues to apply lessons from The Art of War, and exercises patience and perseverance, there is nothing stopping him from succeeding Ramaphosa. The only thing we cannot be sure of is when he’ll strike.

Read more on:    anc  |  anc elective conference  |  david mabuza

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