Fixation on one man risks a swift return to the Zuma years
David Mabuza, the man dubbed "The Cat" in a nod to his many political lives, is a scary figure with a track record no different to that of Jacob Zuma.
He ran Mpumalanga, where he was premier, like a fiefdom, and emerged as kingmaker at the ANC conference in December 2017 that elected Cyril Ramaphosa president of the ANC.
Ramaphosa and the wave of euphoria - or Ramaphoria - over the past 15 months have provided Mabuza with a great cover. Thanks to the absence of scrutiny, Mabuza is enjoying time in the background, and the opportunity to rehabilitate his image.
But the fact that someone like Mabuza is officially the second-most powerful politician in our land is symptomatic of the greater malaise afflicting our polity. He is an antithesis of the New Dawn associated with Ramaphosa.
Politicians cut from the same cloth as Mabuza - the likes of ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule and North West ANC leader Supra Mahumapelo - have been condemned to the rogues gallery. But the three share the same brutal style of leadership and politics, where dissent is easily quashed. They formed the bedrock that entrenched Zuma in the ANC, and created their own quasi network, the Premier League.
"There is nothing called the 'Premier League'," Mabuza said in an interview in 2008, but he conceded that the trio were feared men in the ANC.
The difference between Magashule or Mahumapelo and Mabuza is that the latter chose wisely, siding with the Ramaphosa camp at Nasrec.
Mabuza's role as the ANC's second-in-command should not be taken lightly. All ANC presidents since the party was unbanned were first deputy presidents of the party.Sam Mkokeli
Mabuza's role as the ANC's second-in-command should not be taken lightly. All ANC presidents since the party was unbanned were first deputy presidents of the party. The assumption should be that the deputy aims to become No 1 eventually.
In the context of the May 8 elections, Mabuza's reaction to the outcome will be as interesting, if not more interesting, than Ramaphosa's.
It is clear that the ANC is guaranteed to be returned to office, and the only question at this stage is the margin of the victory. Ramaphosa fans hope a strong margin will allow him to act with speed in creating a lean, sleek government that will manage the economy better and streamline the delivery of public services.
That would include reducing the size of the cabinet and creating a coherent, responsive and accountable crack government team. But cutting the cabinet from 35 ministers to 20 or 25 carries political risk.
Whittling down the cabinet will create 15 direct casualties who will lose out on their million-rand cars, state houses and, most importantly, their ability to dispense patronage. Not to mention the fact that each minister has six well-paid political advisers, and below the political layer are a lot of hangers-on waiting to feed on the crumbs of the political class. The losers will go back to parliament's back benches, and may be tempted to stir things up in the party's dog-eats-dog internal theatre.
Also, the New Dawn promised to present a modern face of ministers competent in the crafting, implementation and articulation of sound policies. But the list submitted to the Independent Electoral Commission - where the next round of parliamentarians, and therefore most ministers, is to be found - shows no sign of new blood. Where will this wave of reformists come from? The president can appoint only two ministers from outside parliament.
The fact is that the ANC parliamentary list already shows that since the Nasrec conference 15 months ago, no meaningful work has been done to attract highly skilled people into the party. Sadly, the intellectual and middle classes have drunk the Kool-Aid, hoping Ramaphosa has a magic wand that will fix the moribund ANC and sort out all our problems, from economics to racial tension. Yet in hard, real terms, the ANC has turned its president into just a figurehead.
On one side of the president we find the reformers, who believe in market-friendly economic policies and good governance. On the other side are those who represent poor ethical conduct and judgment.
The presentation of Ramaphosa as a saviour falsely creates the impression that the head of an ANC government can singlehandedly create meaningful change. This belief among the intelligentsia betrays a dereliction of the duty to think. It also shows a delegation of the role to develop a nation to those who stand for public office.
Occasionally, a call for white voters to side with the ANC is made, as if that is the only way to prevent a populist wave that would do far worse damage than the ANC itself. The risk with this is the creation of a false sense of racial harmony. The other undesirable potential outcome is the re-entrenchment of the ANC hegemony, recreating a one-party-dominant state.
For example, a 60% majority would be hailed as giving Ramaphosa a strong mandate to institute deep reforms. But this could easily re-breed complacency in the party and contempt for the voter. This is the kind of majority that allowed the rampant failure to account to the electorate during the Zuma years.
It would be more beneficial if there were more vocal calls to strengthen our democratic architecture so that it can withstand attempts to subvert our hard-won freedoms and democratic governance. For example, the ANC would have found it a bit more difficult to ram Zuma down our collective throats if we had a system where the head of state was directly elected. This is a flaw of our electoral system. Another is that our MPs are not directly elected either, and therefore account not to the voter but to their parties.
A successful nation-building project depends on more than just those who are in the ring. The media, intelligentsia and civil society need to play their part. They need a long-term gaze, a big-picture approach to the analysis of daily events and public affairs.
The intellectual class is fixated on one man - Ramaphosa - thus creating an easy path for the recreation of the Zuma years. Mabuza chose the Ramaphosa camp because only Ramaphosa could stem the ANC's electoral freefall. Mabuza wanted someone who would give the ANC a longer shelf life so that at the right time, he will be able to claim his inheritance.
If the heir is not Mabuza, it's bound to be one of the other provincial barons who have risen to the fore, as the former liberation movement sheds any pretence that it is steeped in revolutionary traditions and well-managed succession battles.
• Mkokeli is a freelance journalist and political researcher