Baleka Mbete: In it for the long haul

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA – JULY 05: African National Congress (ANC) chairperson and National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete opens up during an interview on July 05, 2017 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Mbete believes, if she were president, her priority would be to unify and heal a party that has been rocked by divisions, she says. (Photo by Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Masi Losi)

‘I-campaign akusiyona intsangu!” exclaims National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete at the end of an hour long interview with City Press this week.

Mbete was talking about the difficulties of campaigning to be elected the successor to ANC president Jacob Zuma at the party’s national conference next month.

She blames her tight work schedule, the nature of that work and being a stickler for rules for the lack of visibility of her campaign, an experience she describes as her first, very strange and unusual.

“How is the campaign going?” we ask.

“It’s going, but of course I think issues of visibility arise and I find myself very limited in terms of just my being able to find time for campaigning.”

‘I found myself overwhelmed’

Mbete is hoping that when Parliament, which she co-heads with Thandi Modise, closes at the end of November, she might have a bit more time on her hands, although it may be rather late at that point, she notes.

ANC branches have met and nominated their preferred leaders. The outcome of those meetings is an indication of what the members want. However, Mbete argues that this can’t be taken as a final word because members will be persuading one another until the last moment at the conference.

“In other words, my team is at work right up to that last minute, moving around, talking to cadres, persuading one another, hearing each other out and fine tuning things as they go, right until the electoral college guides us at conference,” she says confidently.

It would seem that Mbete had done some listening and allowed herself to be persuaded by ordinary South Africans, when she faced a momentous decision in the National Assembly earlier this year. She stunned many when, in August, she decided that an opposition motion calling for Zuma’s removal as the country’s president would be voted on by way of a secret ballot. This went against Zuma’s wishes and, while the ANC did not officially oppose the secret ballot, a number of its senior members hinted otherwise.

The episode ended with at least 26 ANC MPs voting with the opposition in the failed attempt to remove Zuma.

“For me, the moment when I really felt very, very pressured to apply that principle and that understanding was when I had to take the decision about the method of voting.”

The principle she refers to is taking a decision based on the wishes of the communities in which ANC branches are based.

“Being part of the ANC, I have always been happy with the open ballot, because I believe it is more in keeping with transparency, openness, accountability within our constitutional dispensation. But for the first time, I found myself overwhelmed with what the people were saying. And I was hearing what they were saying.”

“I thought this is my moment, as Speaker, to respond to what I am hearing out there. We sometimes stay too much in the (party) caucus mode, but I was lucky to have that test at that moment which shook me and made me hear very clearly that out there I have to grasp what I am hearing from the millions more who vote for the ANC.”

Mbete dismisses as a rumour and a convenient untruth accusations that she uses her powerful positions as Speaker and as ANC national chairperson to protect Zuma from scrutiny.

“It’s an accusation and people argue for it, although they don’t answer me when I’m asking in what way do I protect him.”

Mbete insists that her treatment of Zuma would have been the same if the head of state was FW de Klerk.

“I would deal with him the same way, because they are functionaries of the Constitution. There is no personal issue that I would go out of my way to protect him. President Zuma is my leader, he is my comrade, he is a president of the ANC and president of the country. Beyond that there is no friendship that makes us have parties and socialise.”

‘Compacting’ government

Mbete was elected ANC chairperson at the party’s watershed conference in Polokwane 10 years ago, becoming the first woman to get the position.

She describes it as an honour bestowed on only a few ANC members. She is now one of three women in the running to become the party’s first president.

“I’m excited that finally we can say yes there are women and they can lead. Maybe there is something that we have not benefitted from as the ANC, as the country and society broadly, that women or a woman leader will bring out. I am very excited by the possibility that indeed our conference might do itself a favour and let a woman lead.”

Mbete said if she were to be elected to the ANC’s top office, she would approach “this whole radical economic transformation” by relating it to the underdeveloped, the rural parts of the country, those areas still lacking what the urban centres take for granted.

“The roads that are there in those areas are the same way since Adam and Eve were on this earth.”

Her solution?

“Must a structure of government be as big as it is? How about shrinking it so that some of that money can be channelled to higher education?”

Mbete speaks of a “compacting” of the structure of government, doing away with some of the ministries, with provinces, and focusing more authority in district municipalities. This will help make districts hubs of economic activity.

“There are some ministries where I would say, do they have to be fully fledged ministries where you have a minister and a deputy minister?

“You could use some of the resources that go to this huge bureaucracy and channel them to meet the critical needs of our people.

“I must mention the provinces, the pomp and ceremony of the state of the nation address. Now you have to repeat that in the nine provinces, and you have to have salaries for those political leaders that are there.

“How about shrinking it, whether by number or by size or by the kind of functions that you give to them? Can we not cut down on those structures of government?”

Mbete admits corruption is a big problem and believes the new ANC leadership collective to be elected in December needs to improve on governance.

“I am going to be very focused on that matter of clean governance. None of us has a right to use our positions, the fact that you are in power, to rob our people.”

Consequences for wrongdoing have to reverberate loudly to scare off others.

“We have to look back to the measures that government adopted and ask ourselves to what extent did we effectively ensure that there were consequences for that wrongdoing?”

Mbete is not impressed that some of the presidential hopefuls began campaigning long before the party’s rules allowed them to.

She believes the ANC needs to take another look at its succession processes and campaigning rules.

“People are all over the place campaigning and those of us who don’t think it’s the correct way to do that, to go off and campaign – when in fact we have been told it’s only at a certain point that we will be allowed – then it’s unfair, it becomes unequal and it becomes an unhealthy exercise.”

Mbete says her family will decide on whether she serves as an additional member of the ANC’s national executive committee, if her bid to become party president fails. However, she says it would not be a problem to serve in a less demanding structure.

*This article first appeared in City Press on 19 November 2017.

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