King Mabuza – president of South Africa in 2024?

NELSPRUIT, SOUTH AFRICA – APRIL 7: Mpumalanga ANC chairperson David “DD” Mabuza at the party’s provincial electoral conference in Nelspruit, South Africa on April 7, 2012. Mabuza was re-elected unopposed after his rival, health MEC Clifford Mkasi, declined nomination. (Photo by Gallo Images / City Press / Herman Verwey)

This week one candidate, more than any other, dominated the headlines: Mpumalanga premier, David Mabuza.

Many people were left puzzled by the results of the PGC in Mpumalanga, where almost half of the branches voted for “unity”, apparently on instructions from Mabuza. With the huge number of delegates from Mpumalanga, Mabuza was again hailed as the kingmaker.

On the face of it, keeping everyone in suspense seemed a rather petty attempt by Mabuza to secure the best position for himself. Many people argued that he was playing coy in order to first see which way the scales are tipping between the two camps in order to then negotiate the No.2 position for himself on the winning slate.

I believe there is much, much more to it.

Mabuza is playing the long game. He is positioning himself now for deputy president to ensure that he will become president of South Africa six years from now. But what he knows, for sure, is that he can only become president of the country in 2024 if the ANC does not split in the interim.

Thus the need for “unity”.

The numbers show clearly that Mabuza is far ahead in terms of the current branch nominations for deputy president. With surprisingly strong support in the Eastern Cape (one has to wonder how that happened) and with Zweli Mkhize and Lindiwe Sisulu splitting Cyril Ramaphosa’s camp’s vote for deputy president, he has it in the bag. Even if Mkhize or Sisulu withdraws, it is unlikely that the remaining candidate will gather enough votes to defeat Mabuza.

Thus it is clear that there is no need for Mabuza to play coy – he will win either way.

Over the last few weeks, I have challenged Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s camp repeatedly about the strength of Ramaphosa’s nominations. Every time the response has been: “Ramaphosa won’t win. You will see. It is a done deal”. What the “done deal” would be they wouldn’t say, but I believe it is now becoming clear.

It is apparent from the nominations that the remaining candidates for the top 5 (I’m excluding the deputy secretary general for now), are likely to be from both slates. Gwede Mantashe is far ahead in the race for chairperson, as is Paul Mashatile for treasurer. Both of them are, of course, from the Ramaphosa slate. The race for secretary general is tight, but with the problems in KZN it will most likely tip towards Ace Magashule. So it is balanced between the two camps.

Which then brings us to the position of president. This is where Mabuza’s real power will come in. With the second biggest province and more than 300 “unity” delegates behind him he can, and will, decide who will be the next president of the ANC.

Apart from historical loyalties, it will be strategically far better for his own ambitions to go for Dlamini-Zuma. Firstly, because she is a woman. Given the pressure from the gender lobby in the ANC, it will play well. In contrast, Ramaphosa ideally needs a woman as deputy – so this would make it difficult for Mabuza to get his preferred position.

The second reason why Mabuza is likely to choose Dlamini-Zuma is that it will fast track his presidential ambitions. With Dlamini-Zuma already in her 70s she will almost certainly only be president for one term, possibly even less. So he will only have to wait in the wings for a maximum of six years. The much younger Ramaphosa is much more likely to go for two terms and Mabuza will know that a lot can happen in 11 years that might scupper his plans.

Dlamini-Zuma might even, after a year or so, give Mabuza more responsibilities, as Mandela did with Mbeki, thus becoming more of a figurehead with Mabuza running the country.

So the much discussed “unity slate” that Mabuza is so passionate about will most likely look like this: Dlamini-Zuma as president, Mabuza as deputy president, Mantashe chairperson, Magashule secretary general and Paul Mashatile as treasurer general.

It is highly unlikely that a significant split will happen in the ANC with such a top 5. Yes, some people might leave, but the numbers will be insignificant. And with no significant breakaway party the ANC will almost certainly retain a majority in 2019 and again in 2024, thus making space for President Mabuza.

So Mabuza IS the kingmaker – not of Ramaphosa or Dlamini-Zuma – but of himself. Make way for King DD Mabuza.

– Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.

(Photo credit: Gallo Images / City Press / Herman Verwey)