Ramaphosa's Mabuza challenge

Deputy President David Mabuza speaks at the funeral of ANC stalwart Zola Skweyiya in Pretoria. Photo: TEBOGO LETSIE
Deputy President David Mabuza speaks at the funeral of ANC stalwart Zola Skweyiya in Pretoria. Photo: TEBOGO LETSIE

The idea that David Mabuza was guided by the "dictates of his conscience" when taking the decision to postpone taking his parliamentary position would make him a rarity in governing party politics, writes Mpumelelo Mkhabela.

The decision by Deputy President DD Mabuza to postpone taking his position as an MP presents a fascinating challenge to President Cyril Ramaphosa. His political savviness is being subjected to test.

Having had a discussion with Ramaphosa and allowing him to take charge of publicly explaining the decision, Mabuza was well within the requisite protocol that would make the president feel comfortable and in control. At least insofar the short-term political developments within the ANC, particularly in the top six, are concerned.

What could be Mabuza's ultimate aim? There are three possibilities. The first could be that Mabuza fears the concerns expressed by the ANC's integrity commission – that he is among those who have undermined the party's reputation – could be validated unless he spends time to rebut them.

Taking the deputy president's position with a busy schedule could unwittingly invite official investigations into his dealings and deprive him of the necessary time to clear himself. He could end up either being confirmed guilty of wrongdoing or being seen to be using the state to defend himself.

If Mabuza had this consideration in mind, we might well be entering a new territory in which ethical considerations rather than the rush to high office begin to determine political decision-making among political leaders. And what a territory it would be, led by Mabuza about whom a number of political observers don't think highly except as a shrewd political maneuverer in ANC politics.

Mabuza could've taken up his seat

Mabuza could have chosen to respond to the integrity commission while keeping his parliamentary seat, thus securing his appointment as deputy president of the republic. In terms of the normal political obfuscation to which we have become accustomed, there would have been no adverse consequences for taking up his seat.

He also had the option of taking his seat but requesting Ramaphosa to delay his appointment to the national executive. Either Mabuza knows something about what the integrity commission has on him and would like to clear the air – in which case he should be applauded – or he is pursuing another political strategy.

The second scenario is that he knows the integrity commission might have nothing concrete about him except adverse media publicity. Unlike others in Cabinet and in Parliament, Mabuza was never linked to state capture, whether through the Guptas or Bosasa.

If he knows nothing substantial will be found against him, could there be another reason for postponing taking up a seat in Parliament? The answer is that he might want to return with dramatic effect, emboldened that he has been cleared. That would certainly give him ethical gravitas from which he would gain political mileage.

Dictates of conscience or things material?

The idea that he was guided by the "dictates of his conscience" when taking the decision to postpone taking his parliamentary position would make him a rarity in governing party politics. No one has ever resigned or refused to take up a position on account of dictates of conscience. It's unheard of.

The dictates of things material have dominated political decision-making for far too long. In fact, Mabuza himself has been criticised of being party to such politics. Prior to the 54th elective conference of the ANC at Nasrec, he confessed to have played a part in factional politics, which he urged fellow leaders to bring to an end. But this was a safe confession about what had become standard practice.

Many in and outside the ANC are yet to be convinced about Mabuza's leadership. Public opinion regularly questions his credibility and his abilities. If he bounces back after clearing his name, he will make a huge political statement and potentially silence sceptics.

The third scenario is that he is not enjoying good health. He once told the Sowetan newspaper he had been poisoned by his enemies. Although he appears to have long recovered, he has not spoken about his health or whether the poisoning had any a long-term effect in his ability to be effective in public office. If it is a health scenario, he is not obliged to publicly disclose it. He might quietly stay away and retire in his capacity as deputy president of the republic with all the perks that come with it.

Whatever the valid scenario for Mabuza's temporary withdrawal from Parliament, Ramaphosa must respond. It would be dangerous for Ramaphosa to appoint an overly ambitious deputy in Mabuza's "place". Should Mabuza be ready to take up the post in the near future, Ramaphosa cannot afford to reject him. He needs a place holder who understands he or she is a place holder.

The post-1994 history of succession battles in the ANC does not favour the incumbent to determine his successor. Even with his stature and moral weight, President Nelson Mandela failed to have his preferred choice, which happened to be Ramaphosa, to succeed him. Once President Thabo Mbeki succeeded Mandela, he too failed to manage the succession plan towards his preferred outcome.

President Jacob Zuma, who should have known better after two of the ANC's strongest leaders in recent times failed to get their preferred choices, tried in vain to have Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as his successor. Ramaphosa clinched the leadership race instead.

The lesson is that Ramaphosa should tread carefully when considering an appointment as deputy president. It is his constitutional prerogative to choose from any of the 400 members of the National Assembly. Politically, it's not a free choice as it appears on paper.

Failing to exercise his discretion wisely might open a disruptive leadership succession race too early on, either against himself or Mabuza. Both prospects hold danger to political stability. There are too many things to fix in the country. Fueling the flames of ANC politics can undermine his administration's promise to deliver much-needed governance and economic reforms.

- Mkhabela is a regular columnist for News24.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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