Gwede's goodbye: ANC's departing SG sings party's praises
The departing secretary-general says the ANC is a victim of its own successes and that its recent setbacks do not mean that it will certainly lose power
You cannot miss Gwede Mantashe coming down the hallway of the sixth floor at Luthuli House even when he is out of sight.
The telltale sign that he is about to appear around the corner of the long passage is his unmistakeable voice humming a tune. It can be one of the international socialist movement's anthems, a mineworkers' struggle song, or one of those rhythmic traditional Xhosa songs he was raised on in the rural Eastern Cape.
If he is not singing, it is only because he has stopped by one of a dozen or so offices along the hallway to chat with a member of his staff. The conversations are often loud and punctuated by much laughter.
But today the ritual is interrupted by his deputy, Jessie Duarte, who storms out of her own office across the hallway from Mantashe's with a cellphone in hand shouting: "Comrade SG! Comrade SG! Where is the SG? Hold on, Comrade Ace. Where is the SG?"
Duarte has ANC Free State chairman Ace Magashule on the line and he urgently needs advice from the ANC secretary-general's office on whether to appeal a high court ruling ordering the party in that province to postpone an elective conference. The conference had been scheduled for this weekend but the court had ruled that until about 20 branches have held general meetings in preparation for that conference, it cannot go ahead.Watching Mantashe, Duarte and party lawyer Krish Naidoo hunched over the deputy secretary-general's phone and advising Magashule on how to best handle the crisis, it is hard to believe the accuracy of the media reports that often paint the ANC secretary-general's office as a floor that is split along factional ANC lines.
The reality is that, with two weeks to go before the party's national conference, Mantashe and Duarte feature on two opposing election slates.
It is a development that has strongly associated the secretary-general with Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa's bid for the ANC presidency while at the same time putting the deputy secretary-general firmly in the camp of another presidential hopeful, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.
Engine of the organisation
It was during Walter Sisulu's tenure as secretary-general that the office earned its nickname as "the engine of the organisation" in recognition of the important role the office plays in keeping party structures singing from the same hymn book.
A party president may be the face of the organisation - the symbol of its election campaign - but it is the secretary-general who is responsible for the general health of the organisation, its growth strategy, and for ensuring that the election campaign is conducted effectively.
It is therefore no surprise that when the party is in a state of decline, losing its share of the vote with every passing election, the party president is not the only person who gets blamed. In the ANC, fingers are being pointed at Mantashe for many of the political failings the party has suffered since he was first elected secretary-general 10 years ago.
Predictably, many of the accusations are from the supporters of President Jacob Zuma who also happen to be campaigning for the Dlamini-Zuma slate to emerge victorious at the upcoming conference. They accuse Mantashe, who cut his political teeth in organising mineworkers as a trade unionist in the 1980s, of being an "outsider" who "doesn't understand the ANC" because he never held any senior position in the party before his election as secretary-general in Polokwane in 2007.That throughout his activism in the trade union movement, Mantashe was an active member of the ANC and its alliance partner the SACP does not seem to matter to these critics.
However, even among those who lay the blame for the ANC's plethora of political problems at Zuma's door, there are sometimes murmurings about Mantashe's style of leadership - which some describe as harsh, alienating and even brash, and which they say may have exacerbated the problems.
It's been about an hour of waiting when Mantashe finally ushers us into his office for this interview.
It has been a long day of meetings with various delegations in preparation for the conference. Among these has been a sit-down with the newly elected leadership of the ANC Veterans' League, which is chaired by former SABC head of news Snuki Zikalala.
Mantashe complains of fatigue before summoning his staff for coffee.
He readily admits that the past five years since the last ANC national conference, held in Mangaung in the Free State, have been among the toughest for the 105-year-old ANC both inside and outside of government. But there have been successes too, he hastens to add.
Like what, I ask.
"We are doing well in education," he says pointing out that when the ANC became government in 1994 there were only about 150,000 black people with a university education. "There are now over 850,000 black students in universities."It is because of its success in giving access to higher education to large numbers of the historically disadvantaged that the government is now facing protests from students demanding free education, Mantashe says.
"You see #FeesMustFall is a crisis of our success ... Now when you have the hashtags of FeesMustFall, you are having a crisis of your own success and I think we must deal with it as that, we must not have attitude and anger over #FeesMustFall. We must accept it as a crisis of success and, actually, as a protest for us to succeed some more."
Promise on healthcare
The students who took Zuma and his associates, who included Mantashe at the time, at their word in the run-up to Polokwane a decade ago when the ANC promised free education up to junior degree level would most likely not see things that way.
But what about the Polokwane conference's other big promise: universal access to quality healthcare?
"I would have loved to be talking of the National Health Insurance having been implemented. In this point in time we have had the municipalities that were used to pilot [the scheme]. I think the fact that we have had the successful pilot, we should move now to the next phase of implementing NHI," Mantashe says.
He mentions other "successes", including the growing role of the agricultural sector in the economy, especially its contribution to exports.Whatever successes the ANC may have achieved over the past five years, Mantashe concedes that these would have been overshadowed by the Nkandla scandal, the party's handling of its differences with former public protector Thuli Madonsela, and state capture.
Unlike his party president, who refuses to see the link between these controversies and the ANC's poor performance in the past two elections, Mantashe says there is definitely a connection.
"We registered a decline in both elections [the general election in 2014 and local government polls in 2016]. A massive one in the local government election, 8% decline. I was looking into that campaign and I discovered that that campaign was not fought on local issues; we could not be faulted in terms of service delivery. We could be faulted on macro issues ... the opposition plugged into the Nkandla issue, plugged into the Constitutional Court judgment [finding that Zuma and parliament had failed in their duties by not implementing Madonsela's recommendations on Nkandla], plugged into state capture. And that is what corroded our votes in the majority of cases."
Furthermore, intraparty violence - which resulted in the killing of several councillors and candidates for local government positions - also discouraged people from voting ANC, he says.
He is convinced, though, that the ANC will win back the three metros it lost to a DA-led coalition of opposition parties in 2016.
How, I ask.
"Let me give you a few examples. Nelson Mandela Bay metro is in chaos, Johannesburg is in crisis, Tshwane to a lesser extent. It is up to the ANC at that level to be systematic in dealing with those issues," Mantashe says.Experience, however, shows that the ANC is poor at playing opposition. Recent history shows that once the party loses its majority, it never regains it. Instead it declines with every election. Cape Town and the Western Cape are examples.
Mantashe strongly disagrees and accuses me of mistaking "incidents" for trends.
"It will only be a trend if we fail to recover any of the metros we recently lost."
A day after our interview, the point about the ANC being poor in the opposition benches was driven home when, in Nelson Mandela Bay and Johannesburg, the party spectacularly failed to unseat mayors Athol Trollip and Herman Mashaba after miscalculating that the EFF would vote with it.
At national level, Mantashe is also convinced that the slide in support can be arrested. He points out that the party remains the biggest political formation in the country, with a paid-up membership of just under a million.
"What we should be rebuilding, really, is the narrative around the ANC as an organisation. If we can get that right, the ANC would actually revert to its old and famous glory."
The ANC, he adds, needs to play a role in society that will restore people's confidence in it following years of corruption scandals."I think the examples of that would be when the SABC was actually going down the drain, it was the leadership of the ANC in parliament that took it into a process that was painful but that ultimately corrected it and pulled it out of the drain," he says, referring to the establishment of a parliamentary committee whose inquiry led to a sea change at the public broadcaster.
But didn't you decide to act against Hlaudi Motsoeneng and others who had captured the SABC for their selfish gains because you feared the opposition was about to take the public broadcaster to court and win again?
"No. Court action we have every day. We talk court even on internal matters, so it is not a threat to the ANC. The ANC led the intervention at the SABC. Only when the ANC took that intervention did anything happen because everybody else would shout and shout, but in the ANC we took charge and led it, and the SABC is being turned around now. That is an achievement."
A divisive debate
He hopes that the current hearings into how Eskom and other parastatals were captured by Gupta-linked networks will yield outcomes similar to what happened at the SABC. However, he says this may be harder to achieve because the ANC remains divided over state capture.
"The debate on the state capture, that debate is quite divisive in the ANC because people have different views on it, but it is quite an important debate because if we don't [tackle it] society is going to overtake us. It divides us because others believe that it does not exist, by the way. It is like when you say 'Let's pray' and other people believe there is no God, you know. What do you do?"
But surely the situations would not have deteriorated to current levels had ANC MPs, who are in the majority in parliament, simply done their job of holding the executive and state-owned entities to account when they appeared before parliament by asking tough questions. Why did it take so long for MPs to turn the legislature into an "activist parliament" as had been promised by Luthuli House ahead of the 2014 elections?"When you develop concepts, they take time to build because in that process you have to appreciate that you have to instil a new discipline among parliamentarians: that you are not doing your minister or the ANC any favours by just being soft and bending backwards in dealing with him or her. Once that is accepted and understood, you are better off."
Do you believe that it is understood now?
"There is an understanding, not everybody, you see Afrikaans says 'Agteros kom ook in die kraal' ... even the last ox must come into the kraal. We will only be happy when every parliamentarian appreciates the oversight role of parliamentary committees, rather than thinking that the defence of the ANC is failure to ask difficult questions."
Having been in the position for a decade, Mantashe is not standing for another term as secretary-general. Instead he has been nominated for the post of national chairman. So what is his assessment of how he performed as secretary-general? On his watch, the ANC not only surrendered its majority in a number of metros and lost support nationally, it experienced two breakaways - COPE in 2008 and the EFF in 2013. Does he take any blame for that?
In true Mantashe fashion, he begins his answer by pointing to other breakaways that happened during the tenures of secretaries-general such as Duma Nokwe, Alfred Nzo and even Cheryl Carolus, who was acting secretary-general after Ramaphosa's resignation in 1996.
"The breakaway of COPE, I will take the blame for it. But if you look into what led to the COPE breakaway ... I have a sense that it was a premeditated action. It was a culmination of a very difficult period. When people do analysis, they start in Polokwane and leave the chaos and the fallout that took place in 2005 leading to Polokwane.
"After Polokwane, the actual recall of the president triggered total anger. Eight ministers actually stepped down."Now if you want to say that was my tenure and therefore I must take the blame, I will absorb that because leadership is continuous. It happened to be in my tenure and I accept that."
And the expulsion of former ANC Youth League president Julius Malema, which resulted in the formation of the EFF?
"If there is one decision I don't regret, it is the decision on the youth league and I would imagine that if we did not take that decision, we would have more chaos internally.
"It was not a mistake to expel a young chap who you disciplined in 2010 and he comes back to do the same thing and you charge him again in 2012. At one point you must draw a line."
Alliance in tatters
When Mantashe was elected as secretary-general, it was widely assumed that this would lead to improved relations in the ANC-led tripartite alliance because he was a member of all three organisations. But as he prepares to hand over the reins, the alliance is in tatters, with the SACP finally making good on its threat to contest elections on its own. Mantashe, who is a member of the SACP's central committee, insists that the alliance worked quite well during the first few years of his tenure.
"Deployments were discussed and done. At one point the party [SACP] accepted that it had more people in the cabinet than in any other time in history. That reflected the health of the alliance. The alliance is in trouble now, it is another crisis of success because we created an environment where there is an engagement.
"Now when that process becomes weaker and weaker, people want to collapse the alliance because they are not consulted and now demand to be the decision-makers and think that if they do not say yes, there must be nothing happening in government."