The elephant in the room

R.W. JOHNSON / Amidst the hurly-burly of the election campaign, it is easy to miss the small elephant in the middle of the room, though there is no doubt that this elephant will grow rapidly in size over time. I refer to the election of Paul Mashatile to the post of Deputy President. One should cast one’s mind back to 1998-9 when Mandela had decided to step down and Thabo Mbeki was already his ordained successor.

The question of the deputy presidency saw a protracted tussle between the two men. On the one hand, Mbeki wanted someone who would not challenge him in any way. He came up with a variety of candidates. But none of them were Zulus, and Mandela felt strongly that with the presidency being handed from one Xhosa to another, it was essential to balance the ticket with someone from the largest tribal grouping. Jacob Zuma was the only obvious candidate.

Mbeki knew Zuma well, knew that he was potentially corrupt and financially at the beck and call of Schabir Shaik, and was well aware that Zuma was not an educated man. In addition, Zuma with his many wives and innumerable children conveyed an embarrassingly backward image. Mbeki already had lofty visions of becoming the intellectual leader of the African Renaissance, and Zuma didn’t fit in with that at all. Mbeki preferred someone like his client, Joel Netshitenzhe, a would-be intellectual who liked to play a backroom role.

But Mandela insisted, and could not be denied. The younger, more modern ANC generation were stupefied: Zuma had been a disaster in his role as a provincial minister, and no one had ever imagined that he might be promoted to the national cabinet. In the end. they consoled themselves with the thought that Zuma could obviously never become the President. It was a fatal misstep. In the end, Mandela’s insistence on Zuma was to wreck the New South Africa. A quarter of a century later, Zuma is still the ANC’s nemesis.

Paul Mashatile, a native of Alexandra township in Johannesburg, first gained prominence as “the don of the Alex mafia”, a title he is now keen to disclaim. His entire career has been within the Gauteng ANC – he has never held an ordinary job outside the party; that is, he is an ANC apparatchik, pure and simple. His skills are party manoeuvering, positional warfare, building alliances, and the manipulation of public resources. Since becoming deputy president, he has drawn considerable adverse attention because of his extremely luxurious lifestyle, lived in a series of palatial homes which are not his but which are made available to him by wealthy men for whom he is alleged to have done a series of favours. In particular, it is alleged that while in the Gauteng provincial government he diverted various tenders and contracts their way, and that he is now a “kept man”, in much the same way that Zuma was “kept” by the Gupta family who thrived enormously under the Zuma regime. As a result of this. the Democratic Alliance is bringing a legal case against Mashatile, alleging corruption.

There is also a case in progress against Mashatile’s security detail and drivers who, while driving his official cars, attacked the occupants of a passing car, holding them at gunpoint and beating one of them unconscious. While Mashatile continues to insist that he was not in one of the cars at the time, there is a widespread presumption that this wild and thuggish behaviour could not have occurred if the assailants had not been encouraged in their belief that they could get away with anything. Inevitably, this reflects on Mashatile.

Local journalists au fait with the Mashatile case say that the pattern of ANC politicians benefiting lavishly from the manipulation of contracts and tenders has long been established as normal in Gauteng – South Africa’s richest province, after all. In that sense Mashatile is no more guilty than the average: this is simply the way the system works. After all, both the Gauteng provincial government and the three Gauteng metros – Jo’burg, Ekhurhuleni and Pretoria (Tshwane) – have been under ANC control for the best part of thirty years, and the habits of corruption and tenderpreneurship are deeply ingrained. How else can an ambitious young man growing up in a slum like Alexandra achieve the dramatic upward social mobility which enables him to live a palatial lifestyle and rise to the top of the tree? Moreover, ANC conferences have for some time been run as, effectively, a set of public auctions. It is impossible for anyone to rise to the top within the party unless they are able to reward their supporters with large amounts of cash. The currency of ANC politicking is, well, currency.

South Africans who are shocked by this have simply forgotten that one of the chief appeals of Cyril Ramaphosa in 2017 was that he was so rich that he did not need to be corrupt. But apart from his own family – Bridget and Jeff Hadebe and Patrice Motsepe – almost no one else is rich enough to turn up their nose at making a dishonest penny or two. People like Paul Mashatile are the norm, not Cyril Ramaphosa. There is also a generational angle to this. In the first flush of Mandela-inspired idealism there were a number of honest men in the ANC – men like Mcebisi Jonas – who turned down bribes on principle. But such disinterested idealism has all but vanished now.

This was made crystal clear when Mashatile, unused to such searching publicity and its accompanying accusations, turned to his comrades for help. The Veterans League told him that he must go before the ANC Integrity Committee. They would investigate his case, and if he was innocent they would vindicate him. But, of course, this was dangerous advice: if there really were problems with Mashatile’s deals, this might ruin him. And this advice was met with furious hostility both from the ANC top seven and the National Executive Committee, who accused the Veterans of “decampaigning” the party and behaving like Opposition politicians. “They behave as if they are innocent,” a senior ANC leader fulminated. “But even saints are people who have sinned before. They think that they are these holier than thou people, but we know them.”

That is, the Veterans are accused of having had their hands in the till in their own day, and the next generation indignantly insists on its right to do the same now. This is what the ANC has come to. The NEC is now more corrupt, less educated and more parochial than it’s ever been.

But there is another angle. As the political tide has ebbed in Gauteng, apparatchiks like Mashatile have had to face the wholly unacceptable possibility that they might lose power. With that all their tenderpreneurship and, indeed, their raison d’etre would be washed down the drain. So, faced with that dread possibility, Mashatile has negotiated deals with the EFF and the Patriotic Alliance to overthrow Opposition rule in the Gauteng metros. This meant going flatly against the ANC ban on deals with the EFF.

But the fact is that Paul Mashatile and Julius Malema are twin peas in a pod. Both of them have lived their entire active lives within party structures, and both of them are skilled and experienced at turning matters to their personal advantage. The fact that Mashatile still works within ANC structures while Malema works within his own splinter organisation is merely a detail. The two men understand one another completely, and Malema warmly supported Mashatile’s candidacy for the ANC deputy-presidency.

This is problematic for Ramaphosa. He is well aware that Malema hates him: after all, in 2012 Ramaphosa chaired the ANC disciplinary committee which upheld Malema’s suspension from the ANC. And there seems little doubt that if the ANC falls below 50% in the coming election, Mashatile will act as the EFF’s Trojan Horse. The only problem is that Malema wants the deputy presidency for himself. But that could be arranged.

If an ANC-EFF coalition emerges, Ramaphosa might well step down, in which case President Mashatile could then make Malema his deputy president. But in that eventuality, and even in the eventuality that Mashatile remains deputy president, the DA corruption case against Mashatile will have to be heard.

In either case, the electorate at large will then grasp the fact that we are again facing the likelihood of state capture with all manner of corrupt interests lining up to take full advantage of having a compromised president in their pocket. By that point, the elephant in the room will be trumpeting very loudly. The situation is not helped by the fact that Mashatile is a wholly provincial figure with no popularity or recognition outside Gauteng.

As will be seen, all these scenarios signal the probable demise of the ANC. Whether we see an ANC-EFF coalition, a President Mashatile, a Deputy President Malema or a much weakened Ramaphosa administration hanging on by its fingernails, the result will be a government in no sort of shape to tackle the huge economic and social crises hanging over the country. Any of these results will see a sharpening of ANC factional conflict, capital flight, and a strengthening of secessionist tendencies. As the French say, “nothing lasts like the provisional”, so we may fob off for a while longer the denouement for which we have been heading ever since 1994. But it cannot be altogether avoided.

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