South Africa's deputy president David Mabuza speaks during a meeting with China's premier Li Keqiang in Beijing, China 29 October 2019. Naohiko Hatta/Pool via REUTER

SOUTH Africa’s deputy president David Mabuza manages to balance being at centre stage of South Africa’s politics while staying out of the spotlight.

His political ascendency started in Mpumalanga – where he became provincial premier – and that period continues to cast a long shadow over his political career.

Distrusted by elements of both President Cyril Ramaphosa’s and former president Jacob Zuma’s camps, he seems to be biding his time and preparing a run for the presidency.

But in the meantime, Ramaphosa has tasked him with overseeing reforms of the electricity sector, a critical sector of the economy that has suffered from mismanagement over a long period.

Will he be able to outsmart his contenders and build up a constituency to take over the leadership of the governing African National Congress (ANC)? The Africa Report takes a look at the past, present and future of South Africa’s publicity-shy deputy president.

Christmas cash

Four days before Christmas in 2009, R14m ($939,900) in cash was stolen from David Dabede Mabuza’s farm near Baberton in the largely rural Mpumalanga Province.

It’s more money than most South Africans will amass in a lifetime, and Mabuza, who was then only seven months into his premiership of the province, is not a politician who likes attention.

The full amount was never reported to authorities, and eventually the story disappeared. It was months before the 2010 football World Cup and rumours were doing the rounds about kickbacks paid out during the awarding of construction tenders for the R1.2bn stadium in the provincial capital of Nelspruit (Mbombela).

Whistles blowing

Since then, there have been at least 25 more such unresolved assassinations in the province, said Pompie Letwaba, a whistleblower on construction tenders, while speaking this week on a local television show, Newzroom Afrika.

“When we talk about Mpumalanga, we’re talking about hell. The former premier is the most brutal man in the Mpumalanga politics,” an aggrieved Letwaba said, adding that members of the police force were in on the crimes.

Mabuza’s office a day later took strong exception to “yet another wild set of allegations”.

Mpumalanga influence

Mabuza was elected deputy president of the ANC in December 2017, and appointed as the country’s deputy president three months later when the then-deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa, replaced Jacob Zuma as president.

Mabuza’s office did not comment on all the details, but said that having left provincial office in 2018, the deputy president is “excluded by the constitutional architecture of our country with its distinct and separate spheres of government, from exercising provincial executive authority in Mpumalanga. Therefore, he cannot be justly drawn into the politics of the province.”

Nothing that links Mabuza to any crimes have ever been proven in a court of law, but such is his legend that many in Mpumalanga still believe that he is the silent force behind everything that happens there.

Meow, meow

Mabuza himself is an enigma, although he is charismatic in person. Aides have tried to convince him to do sit-down media interviews and press conferences, only to be disappointed.

He nicknamed himself ‘The Cat’ when he returned to work two months after surviving a poisoning attempt in 2015.

This poisoning case, too, was never resolved. During South Africa’s hard Covid-19 lockdown from April to August last year, Mabuza pretty much disappeared from the public eye as he retreated to weather the pandemic at his farm.

Given the corruption allegations with him at the axis, a chorus of public disapproval sounded last month when Ramaphosa appointed Mabuza to head an inter-ministerial committee to oversee the roll-out of Covid-19 vaccines, the first million of which arrived in Johannesburg on 1 February.

Two sides to every cat

But Mabuza also has another, more positive reputation, one of being a meticulous micromanager. “One thing I have always given him credit for is he is an effective government leader,” says Mpumelelo Mashifane, publisher of the Mpumalanga-based 013news. “He understands the machinations of the state and how to deliver.”

During his tenure – Mabuza was provincial executive member in charge of the province’s roads before becoming premier – the province’s roads improved. “If there is one legacy about him, it is how he built the road infrastructure,” says Mashifane. “He’s able to use government spending very well.”

Perhaps it’s also related to his leadership style. Mashifane continues: “He’s a very individualistic leader. It’s always about him [doing things], not about the collective. He managed to micromanage the province when he was premier. In that way he knew what happened in each municipality, and the contracts going out. That’s how he was able to control projects.”

Tough tasks

Yet Mabuza has been powerless thus far in preventing the periodic electricity blackouts that have plagued the country for over a decade. Ramaphosa appointed him to head a team tasked with overseeing the power utility Eskom’s recovery, vital for attracting big investments – one of the central tenets of the government’s economic recovery plan. It held its first meeting in February 2020.

Problems at the state-owned utility are the result of years of political mismanagement and corruption, which siphoned off billions of rand meant to be used in maintenance.

In fact, Mabuza hasn’t been as good for business as the money-minded Ramaphosa would have liked. Mabuza failed to turn up for his swearing-in as member of parliament following the May 2019 elections, fuelling speculation that he intended to return to Mpumalanga instead.

The markets approved and the local currency strengthened, only to drop back a day later when Mabuza emerged again. He claimed he was waiting for the ANC’s integrity commission to give him the green light due to the number of criminal allegations swirling around him. The commission – a panel of party elders – didn’t comment until it admitted a year later that his case never was before them.

Keeping them guessing

It wasn’t the first time Mabuza called everyone’s bluff. His clandestine manoeuvres handed Ramaphosa his narrow victory as president at the ANC’s 2017 elective conference. Mabuza was advocating party unity ahead of the conference, but was believed to be supporting Zuma’s faction as he did in the decade before.

Hours before the voting, Mabuza secretly told Mpumalanga delegates to vote for Ramaphosa instead, a move that decided the very divided conference in Ramaphosa’s favour. Mabuza himself amassed sufficient votes from Zuma’s camp and from his own province to become deputy president.

This is one of the reasons why Ramaphosa had no choice but to appoint Mabuza as the country’s deputy president and retain him as an ally.

Talk in his province now is that Mabuza might have a go at the presidency. Despite being known as someone who bides his time, the 60 year old is forced to pounce more quickly than he might want to – next year, when the ANC has its next elective conference.

His wranglings in 2017 meant he had to regroup to survive politically, having effectively lost the trust of the ANC’s two main factions. If he doesn’t make a bid for the presidency, Mabuza might find himself out in the cold.

“It’s either he gets dropped like a hot potato or he fights. You never know what he could pull off,” explains Mashifane.

Jumping hurdles

There could be one hurdle. Mabuza is likely to be in the spotlight in June, when a R1bn damages claim is set down on the roll of the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria. It involves the owner and developer of a Mpumalanga nature reserve, Fred Daniels.

Journalist and author Rehana Rossouw recently published a book, titled Predator Politics detailing the 15-year battle by Daniels against Mabuza and Mpumalanga government departments and officials.

The battle, she said, “stemmed from Daniels’s exposure of fraudulent land scams, allegedly orchestrated by Mabuza and disadvantaging poverty-stricken residents”.

Rossouw said Mabuza did not file any responding papers in court on the matter. He told a reporter last year he was not approached for comment about the book, but the story made it clear that he thought the claim by Daniel was spurious.

“Lies have short legs. They must know ‘The Cat’ is back,” he told the reporter.

This article first appeared in the Africa Report.

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