A decade-long shroud of controversy over Deputy President David Mabuza this week almost prevented his continued tenure as the country's second most powerful government leader.
The persistent allegations surfaced shortly after he was appointed Mpumalanga premier in 2009, attempting to drag Mabuza into a web of political murders, tender corruption and patronage.
The rumours peddled by critics of the self-anointed 'Cat' of politics have not succeeded in bringing about his downfall. Neither did an alleged attempt to poison him in 2014.
According to a well-placed source Mabuza still suffers negative effects from the poisoning, for which he receives regular medical treatment in Russia.
The Cat has slipped the noose time and again, shrugging off allegations against him. But question marks remain over a man who the ANC's Integrity Commission identified as a member who may have brought the party into disrepute.
No evidence has yet convinced law enforcement authorities Mabuza was guilty of any of the crimes he stands accused of committing.
A News24 study of financial reports shows however, that the biggest mark on Mabuza's record is the severe financial mismanagement of the Mpumalanga province, where he served as premier until 2018.
Data from National Treasury and Auditor General reports show how irregular expenditure soared to disastrous levels for such a small province, totalling a little more than R35bn while Mabuza was at the helm.
Year after year the Auditor General recommended increased control measures and training for municipal officials, bemoaning the lack of adherence to supply chain management regulations.
But Mpumalanga was showing no improvement in audit outcomes, the reports show.
On Wednesday, Mabuza was announced as the deputy president, having survived the Integrity Commission's questions. Every deputy president in democratic South Africa has succeeded to the highest office in the land.
For the next five years, Mabuza will be the head of government business.
The story of Mabuza's scandals starts when he was the MEC for Education in 1998. Under pressure to increase the province's matric pass rate, Mabuza and a small team of bureaucrats allegedly cooked the books, reportedly in Mabuza's living room, falsely inflating the pass rate.
It was the first major scandal in post-democratic South Africa.
Mabuza was never charged.
This episode was highlighted in a scathing front-page expose published by the New York Times in August 2018 that placed Mabuza as a prime example of South Africa's corruption problem.
In a written response to the expose, Mabuza said no evidence existed of his wrongdoing. The claims against him were "tragically preposterous", he wrote.
There is no doubt, as City Press reporter Sizwe Sama Yende details in his book, Eerie Assignment, there has been a consistent push to discredit Mabuza.
Facebook pages were established that publish salacious rumours about Mabuza, and the rumour mill often changed tact. But the Cat continues to live up to his name.
Former Mpumalanga premier Mathews Phosa has publicly claimed to be aware of 17 political murders since Mabuza rose to power.
News24 understands that two murders specifically stood out to police; the deaths of Jimmy Mohlala (January 4, 2009) and Sammy Mpatlanyane (January 8, 2009).
They were both gunned down. Mohlala, the then speaker of the Mbombela council, was on a crusade to expose corruption involving the construction of the R1.2bn Mbombela Stadium built for the 2010 Soccer World Cup.
Mpatlanyane, a spokesperson for Mpumalanga arts and culture at the time, was gunned down in the bedroom of his second storey home.
No one has ever been brought to book for their deaths.
Another significant death has dogged Mabuza's footsteps, that of James Nkambule, who was an outspoken critic and agent provocateur.
Nkambule died in October 2010, and an autopsy report later reported on by the Sunday Times, revealed "organophosphate poison" in his stomach contents.
Organophosphates are chemicals commonly found in agricultural insecticides.
In June 2010, just months before he collapsed and died, Nkambule publicly claimed Mabuza was behind high-profile political murders in the province.
At the time of his death, Nkambule was the Congress of the People's (COPE) Ehlanzeni regional chairperson.
Mabuza's involvement in these deaths has never been established. Last year he opened a case of defamation against ANC member Bishop Hangwi Maumela, who heads up a non-profit organisation called the Concerned South African Alliance for referring to him as a "murderer".
Maumela was filmed on July 28 during a public meeting held at Khotso Hall in Embalehle in Mpumalanga saying: "We need decent leaders, people with a vision, who have made it in life without killing other people… We can't have a murderer as deputy president and then have a girlfriend of a murderer as a premier."
The next month Mabuza, then deputy president, travelled to Embalehle police station to open a case against Maumela.
Speaking to News24 at the time, Mabuza said he wanted all the allegations levelled against him to be tested in a court of law.
"I have opened a case. It took me a long time. There were all sorts of insinuations, vulgar words against me and every time people were alleging... finally someone stood in the open and said this one is a murderer. I felt this is an opportunity for someone to give the public and the courts all the evidence," he said.
He hoped the case will finally ventilate the allegations against him once and for all.
Maumela has not backed down, however.
In an open letter addressed to President Cyril Ramaphosa on Wednesday, hours before he announced his new Cabinet and Mabuza as his deputy, lawyers for Maumela urged Ramaphosa to reconsider Mabuza's appointment.
Mabuza is also cited in a R1.2bn damages claim filed in the Pretoria High Court by businessman Fred Daniel, who claims Mabuza was involved in land claims corruption with two farmers, that led to him losing potential business.
"The damages trial has been set for 27 June to 28 August 2020 Pretoria High Court, meaning that for 25 days embarrassing evidence of corruption will be heard about the deputy president of South Africa," the letter to Ramaphosa reads.
This would happen, the letter claimed, if Ramaphosa did not allow the courts to finalise a criminal case involving an alleged R25bn land claims fraud, in which Mabuza is allegedly implicated.
The letter also mentions that Daniel will likely give evidence before the Zondo commission into state capture.
"When it comes to the deputy president, who is a heartbeat away from becoming the next president of the Republic, your responsibility is even greater to satisfy yourself that Mr Mabuza has the requisite moral standing and personal character to become the president of the Republic," the letter adds.
"We are of the view that you should first allow the legal proceedings referred to above to run their course."
Another case before the courts speaks to alleged "ghost members" whose names appeared on ANC branch lists to falsely inflate the membership levels of the party in Mabuza's province.
Mpumalanga took a staggering 736 delegates to the ANC national elective conference in December 2017. These delegates are largely credited for Ramaphosa's victory.
The New York Times piece also accused Mabuza of siphoning millions from government departments, particularly in the building of "world-class" boarding schools, the costs of which ballooned inexplicably. (Mabuza denied the allegations in their entirety).
No evidence exists in the public domain that ties Mabuza to any illegality. The fact that 90% of municipalities never obtained a clean audit during his tenure can be put down to his leadership style, and appointments of officials, critics would argue.
Graphic shows the audit performance of Mpumalanga municipalities. Source – Auditor General
It is however a question that Mabuza has studiously avoided.
Mabuza embraced Ramaphosa moments after his official swearing in on Tuesday, both men smiling as they shook hands.
There is no doubt that rumours over Mabuza's reluctance to reach the top spot should be ignored. He is a man who survived the most serious allegations of impropriety, ever since it emerged he donated R400 000 to former president Jacob Zuma's wedding in 2008 – months before he became premier of Mpumalanga.
But it seems Mabuza's career is set to mirror Zuma's in more ways than one.
Only time will tell whether Ramaphosa embraced an ally, or an enemy.