At the end of 2015, David Mabuza fell gravely ill. But he got back in form and was as ferocious as ever. Sizwe sama Yende has a look at the man who was just elected as deputy president of the ANC
The public gallery of courtroom 4G in the North Gauteng High Court is packed to capacity. With most people clad in ANC regalia, it looks like a political rally.
It’s Thursday morning, May 11. Mpumalanga Premier David Mabuza walks in and casts a glance at the crowd of provincial Cabinet members, ANC bigwigs, government officials and businesspeople. He waves, smiles and shakes a few hands as he walks to the plaintiff’s seat.
They compete for his attention. He has power.
Whispers come from different directions. He swings around and waves.
Outside court, Church Square is also daubed in yellow thanks to an invasion of about 2 000 ordinary ANC supporters.
Mabuza sits about a metre from his former boss, Mathews Phosa: a businessman, lawyer, former ANC treasurer-general and Mpumalanga’s first premier.
He’s the defendant.
It’s their third day in court together, but they’ve not spoken – they’ve barely even looked at each other. In the short distance between them, the tension is palpable. It’s war.
Mabuza has filed a R10 million defamation lawsuit against Phosa for allegedly disseminating an intelligence report that alleges he was an apartheid spy.
This is one of many political skirmishes Mabuza has been involved in since 2008, when he was elected Mpumalanga ANC chairperson. He became the premier of the province a year later.
About five months ago, it was an altogether different fight – a health scare forced him to take leave for two months.
According to the rumour mill, he was ill because of poisoning, mental derangement or kidney failure, and he had a date with death.
Like his other battles, Mabuza won that one too. The glow on his face is back, so is the bulging belly, the smoking of cigarettes and the public appearances.
Since his recovery, he has renamed himself The Cat. He insists his political rivals poisoned him.
He’s a cat with nine lives who has been declared politically dead several times in the past eight years.
Will he triumph over the spy allegations? It’s too early to say.
Judge Bill Prinsloo will rule on whether Phosa fabricated the spy report and disseminated it to cut Mabuza’s career short.
I met Mabuza outside court last week.
“Mfo [brother]! You’ve come all the way to hear for yourself,” he said gleefully.
I’ve had ringside seats at his political battles, and only once have I seen him lose.
Mabuza is no longer just a regional politician – he emerged early last year as a key player in the Premier League, a factional lobby group that includes North West Premier Supra Mahumapelo and Free State Premier Ace Magashule, who back President Jacob Zuma and are campaigning for a successor anointed by him in 2017.
On the cusp of national power, Mabuza is believed to be gunning for the ANC deputy presidency, or at the very least a position in the party’s top six.
His political foes dismiss him as a “dagga smoker”. In provincial SA Communist Party gatherings, he’s referred to derisively, not by name, but as “the dagga-smoking man from the farm”.
Since his recuperation, the man public servants call The Hurricane – for his sporadic ireful outbursts when things go wrong – has picked up his pace.
I spoke to him in January after the ANC’s 104th birthday celebration at KwaMbonambi Stadium in KwaZulu-Natal, our first chat in six years. He has refused to grant me interviews since 2010, and four years later accused me of instructing former Congress of the People employees to write affidavits alleging he had sent them to steal information from the party’s late secretary in Ehlanzeni, James Nkambule.
“Kunjani ndoda? Ngikugcine kudala,” he said in isiZulu, extending his arm for a handshake. “You’ve been writing that I’ve died, and I’ve been poisoned.”
It was characteristic Mabuza: arms flailing, hands gesticulating, finger pointing and flitting across his face to accentuate his point. At least his eyes did not bulge in anger this time.
The tension cleared as he put his arm around my shoulders while I shook my head to deny the accusation. My journalist colleagues giggled, so did I.
“I’ve not died. I’m here,” Mabuza said, “But, it was tough there [in hospital]. I was crawling.”
So was I.
He joined his comrades for the festivities. Music blared and he ascended the stage – uncharacteristically – with a dance. And on he danced.
The Cat lost his first life when Phosa fired him as education MEC in 1998 because the province’s matric results were fraudulently inflated, bringing shame to the Mpumalanga administration and earning the province its distasteful nickname: Mamparalanga.
Ten years later, after a number of other positions, including one as an MP, he was elected as provincial ANC chairperson.
In Mpumalanga, Mabuza is the gatekeeper of power. He is notorious as a ruthless politician who has destroyed opponents and dumped the closest of his allies after using them.
“He’s a calculating character … good at planning behind closed doors. He knows where he is going and had the ambition to be where he is now many years ago,” says Peter Nyoni, a former ANC provincial executive committee member and close ally.
“He understands chess. He knows you can sacrifice certain pieces for the king.”
Mabuza is known for playing chess alone at his farmhouse, and translates his moves into politics. He also repeatedly reads The Art of War by Sun Tzu.
“I once played chess with him, though. He’s not a master, I’ve beaten him,” Nyoni says.
Nyoni fell out with Mabuza and lost his ANC provincial executive committee position. But he still says the premier is a “kind-hearted” person.
“The problem is his character in politics … He can give you a job, a tender to keep you busy, for you to lose focus while he makes his next big political move. He’s not the kind of a man to empower you … Everything is about himself,” he says.
A friendship of more than 20 years did not prevent Mabuza from dumping Nyoni. It perhaps explains why he has more enemies than friends, and few remaining allies.
Mabuza fell out with his former ANC deputy Charles Makola, who was then fired from his job as Nkangala district municipality manager. Makola tried to contest the ANC provincial leadership conference in 2012, as did former health MEC and ANC treasurer Clifford Mkasi. Mkasi had to leave politics and return to medicine.
Mabuza also fell out with David Dube, who became his deputy in 2012. The head of the provincial human settlements department had his whole management team dismantled after Mabuza said they were “politicking” and failing to meet deadlines and targets to build RDP houses.
A former MEC, who declined to be named, differs with Nyoni about Mabuza’s “kind-heartedness”.
“No. If he was, he could not have destroyed so many comrades and derive joy from doing so. He’s just paranoid and narcissistic. Everything is about himself,” he says.
“He’s like a child who catches a fly, clips its wings and lets it walk. No comrade has been empowered by him because he gives and he takes. But he has a sweet charm. There’s a time when he charmed and made me drop my guard, and that’s when he’s dangerous.”
A few weeks after the ANC’s birthday party, I’m sitting opposite Mabuza at Nutting House Lodge, 5km outside Mbombela.
He’s been chairing a government lekgotla involving nine provincial departments and 23 municipalities for the whole day, but has agreed to a one-on-one interview.
Later on, he changes his mind. Exhausted, he sees three journalists at once.
Mabuza raises the issue of his illness again, sharply this time. His eyes bulge, incandescent with anger. The Hurricane is raging and his spokesperson, Zibonele Mncwango, uncomfortably fiddles with his pen.
“I got questions from you!” Mabuza says, pointing at me, “while I was at the lowest point of my life in hospital.
“I was surprised by your behaviour. I didn’t know that you hate me so much that not even one of you wished me well while I was lying on a deathbed. Does it matter now to talk about what I went through?” he says, gesticulating wildly.
After he calms down, he tells us how he fell ill last September while celebrating his 53rd birthday at his rural birthplace of Phola village near Hazyview. He started sweating, suffered from diarrhoea and lost weight rapidly. He insists he was poisoned.
“There might be people who are my enemies. Some of them I disciplined. I’m not sure of the environment in which I live and work. Doctors said I ate something,” he says.
He says he is a leader today because of God’s intervention.
Of all the multitudes of legends that have been told about Mabuza, none about piety has ever come up. He has been accused of ruthlessness, but never of being a religious man.
“It’s not because of our making that we’re chosen as leaders … Somewhere there is God’s intervention … There’s divine intervention all the time,” Mabuza says.
A stifled smile flits across his face as I ask a flattering question: “How have you managed not to lose a single conference despite having so many established political activists as your opponents and despite so many scandals?”
Mabuza replies: “I attribute that to loving people. I have a big heart and I’m forgiving and honest.”
Loving people, yes, there may be truth in that.
Despite what his rivals and former allies say, Mabuza is loved by ordinary people. He foregoes sleep to receive people from all over Mpumalanga at his home who come to raise ANC branch issues or ask for assistance like bursaries for their children.
Two years ago, he started the David Mabuza Foundation to offer educational funding and build houses for the poor.
Mabuza denies dispensing patronage, or having stacks of cash in his house, or playing chess games with allies who he uses and dumps in the political wilderness.
“The behaviour of my deputies [in the ANC] Charles Makola and, recently, David Dube changed. I think it was ambition and they did certain things for people to vote for them. I never dump people, that’s not correct.”
He has publicly stated that he was accused of ordered the assassination of political rivals and corruption-busting comrades, such as Mbombela speaker Jimmy Mohlala, who blew the lid on corruption regarding a World Cup stadium tender. So did he?
“No,” Mabuza replies.
“One day,” he says, “people will get clarity when they lay hands on privileged information I have about the political murders. Just remember the name Project January 8. This individual bought people to kill people and allege that I killed them. They wanted me arrested … to be out of the way.”
Mabuza cuts the interview short.
To try to get another, I write him an email apologising for being a journalist first and not wishing him a speedy recovery while he was in hospital. This appealed to him, and he personally confirmed receiving my “love letter” when we briefly met the next day at the lekgotla.
I wanted to ask him about his poor upbringing in Phola, his work as a maths teacher, how he entered politics, his imminent national role in the ANC and his many scandals.
I also wanted to ask him about two of my favourite projects of his: the four state-of-the-art boarding schools he built for children of farm workers, and the commission of inquiry he recently appointed to investigate the working conditions of farm labourers. He’s the first premier to tackle this issue.
Phola village, between Hazyview and White River, is a mishmash of rickety, modest and grandiose homes. Underdeveloped and dusty, the village’s first proper streets are now being built.
Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) posters dominate walls, street poles and tree trunks.
Aside from Mabuza, the village is home to two other prominent Mpumalanga leaders: ANC Youth League deputy president Desmond Moela and EFF provincial leader Collen Sedibe.
Phola’s residents rarely see Mabuza or his latest wife, Pam Golding estate agent Patience Mnisi, nowadays – except on his birthday, which he celebrates with village children.
Trying to understand his political upbringing, people point you to the Monareng family.
I speak to Sipho Monareng, who rose to prominence with the Save Mpumalanga ANC faction, Mabuza’s staunch opponent. Monareng, who also bit the dust when trying to unseat Mabuza, has now joined the EFF.
Mabuza was very close to Monareng’s elder brother, Themba. As a teacher in the 1980s and 1990s, Mabuza was active in teachers’ union Sadtu.
“He was a very humble person,” says Monareng of days gone by. “And a leader who wanted things to be done in an orderly way so that the organisation couldn’t be compromised. He talked harshly with me for being naughty as a politically active high school pupil with a tendency for organising violent civil disobedience campaigns.
“Today, I see many strange things about him. He has changed, but the politics in South Africa has changed too.”
Monareng reminisces that when he came back from exile, Themba was popular among ANC branches, and they had to convince him not to stand against Mabuza for the position of chairperson of the Nelspruit region in 1995, simply because Mabuza was his political senior.
“He was not contested in that conference,” Monareng says. From then on, Mabuza has been entrenched in the ANC’s leadership.
And he has yet to lose a conference.