David Mabuza, the man who would be deputy president

NELSPRUIT, SOUTH AFRICA – FEBRUARY 23: Mpumalanga Premier David Mabuza gestures during an interview about talks about his career and his future plans in politics during an interview on February 23, 2017 in Nelspruit, South Africa. Mabuza confided that the time was right for him to move on from provincial politics. (Photo by Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Masi Losi)

The ANC could possibly have a new deputy president in David Mabuza.

The Mpumalanga premier emerged as an important ally to whoever wants to emerge as victor at the ANC’s national elective conference after the number of delegates voting at the conference was made known.

Although KwaZulu-Natal remains the largest voting bloc at the conference, the divisions in the province mean its support is split between Cyril Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. This makes Mpumalanga, the second largest voting bloc, a crucial provinces for the candidates.

His support may well turn out to be a poisoned chalice.

The man who’s referred to himself as The Cat for his many political lives supported President Jacob Zuma in Polokwane in 2007 and was rewarded with the premiership of Mpumalanga in 2009. Those in the know say he has since been running the province like his personal turf with the president’s protection.

Controversy followed him around since his first day in office. In 2010 an alleged sum of R14 million in cash stolen from his farm house. The local police opened a case but the province’s organised crime unit insisted only R1 200 was stolen. The Sunday Times later reported Mabuza felt that to report R14 million missing from his residence would have raised eyebrows, so, instead, he only reported R4 million missing.

The investigation into the incident went nowhere.

Mabuza has also been accused of being behind several political killings in Mpumalanga. Among those murdered was Mbombela speaker Jimmy Mohlala, who was killed in 2009 after he spoke out against tender corruption in the construction of the city’s world cup stadium. Sunday Times journalist Mzilikazi Wa Afrika was arrested in 2010 after he published articles about a Mozambican man who claimed to have been hired by senior Mpumalanga officials as an assassin. Mabuza was said to be behind the arrest.

In 2015 Mabuza himself was allegedly poisoned and forced to take two months’ leave, City Press reported.

Last year he filed a R10 million defamation lawsuit against Mathews Phosa, claiming that Phosa accused him of being an apartheid spy to ANC deputy secretary general Jessie Duarte. He lost the case.

“Mabuza is a dubious character. It’s a well-known secret that he’s been involved in tender fraud in Mpumalanga,” says political analyst Ralph Mathekga.

“So he’s a liability to whichever presidential candidate he goes with. Even if he brings a larger number of delegates, he remains a liability because you can’t deny his association with corruption. Someone like Cyril Ramaphosa can’t run an anti-corruption campaign while sitting next to David Mabuza. You just can’t rehabilitate him.”

Who will Mabuza support?

While it’s still anyone’s guess at this stage, what’s clear is that Mabuza is bargaining for a position, not only in the ANC’s top 6, but in government.

“I have it from very reliable sources that he dropped Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma because she wasn’t guaranteeing him a position in government,” says Prof. Susan Booysen from the Wits School of Governance.

“He suspects that she is going to dump him … So he’s going for very high stakes and it is an unbearable situation for the ANC. Whoever wants to win in December will have to offer him something terrific.

“Given that treasurer-general of the ANC Zweli Mkhize was running so explicitly on the unity ticket and given the fact that he has in the past clearly been a Zuma supporter and the Zumas are not so outspoken against corruption; these variables predispose him to making compromises and incorporating people like Mabuza in his campaign.

“We all know ‘unity’ is a euphemism for burying corruption. In that way Mkhize is the one that could be predisposed to take on board Mabuza.”

How did he get the numbers?

It’s clear that Mabuza has been hard at work, registering new members to Mpumalanga’s ANC branches.

“The suspicion is that he may have inflated the numbers, but there’s only one man who could confirm or refute this and that is secretary general Gwede Mantashe and that has not happened,” says Mathekga.

“Whether Mantashe is aware of this or has had a hand in it, the fight for Mabuza’s votes has become a zero sum game. Everyone needs him.”

Booysen says that while inflating the numbers is nothing new, what makes Mpumalanga an interesting case is that it’s a relatively small province.

“It is clear that everyone there is very united behind that leader. They know that good numbers give them bargaining power, and they’ve done very well for themselves.”

(Photo credit:  Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Masi Losi)