What is Mbete up to? O
rdinarily, one would think the utterances by ANC chairperson and National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete were simply part of the usual paranoid noise leaders of the governing party are wont to make from time to time.
It is one of those accepted things in South African politics that when the going gets tough, ANC leaders go into siege mode and sound the siren to get members behind the sandbags – guns cocked and all. Mbete’s utterances are that. And more. Rallying the troops, Mbete told supporters in Ekurhuleni last weekend the ANC was under attack “inside” and “outside” the borders of South Africa. She warned these “inside-outside” attackers the party would be up to the fight.
“The ANC is not a drug that you just smoke. It has been around for 103 years, so whoever thinks they can topple it is playing games,” she was quoted as saying by News24.
In April, Mbete infuriated the ANC in Parliament when she told a party gathering in Limpopo there were members of the caucus who were plotting to overthrow President Jacob Zuma.
“There are people there in Parliament who have allowed themselves to be part of a huge agenda. Zuma must go … Zuma must go, and they can’t wait for the next congress of the ANC or NGC [national general council],” she said.
Again she summoned the troops to battle to defend the president: “Where is the ANC when that is happening? Because the ANC just elected Zuma a little over two years ago.”
Two months earlier she had to grovel her way out of trouble after warning ANC members in North West that “if we don’t work, we will continue to have cockroaches like [ Julius] Malema roaming all over the place”.
In Parliament she has been behaving strangely, making rulings she should have known would never stand the test of the institution’s own rules, never mind the courts. There have been times when she has told opposition MPs not to ask President Zuma certain questions, only for him to embarrass her by going on to answer the very questions she was trying to protect him from.
Her elementary misreading of the rules is puzzling, seeing as she served as deputy to Frene Ginwala in two parliaments and as Speaker from 2004 to 2008.
The common denominator with her statements and actions is they have all been about a lame attempt to defend President Zuma.
What is she up to? Is she just being a cuddly nanny to the president, a loyal and disciplined cadre who is concerned about her party – or is there something else up her sleeve?
After her outbursts about the plot against President Zuma, there was fury from Sauer Street to Plein Street, as her own comrades whispered that she was sowing suspicion and division in the party. Why, those at national leadership asked, had she not outed any conspirators in the senior ANC structures on which she sat before speaking at an open forum before ordinary members and in front of the media? Members of the ANC caucus were incensed that she, as one of the most senior leaders in the parliamentary precinct, was casting dangerous aspersions on those she led. The result of her utterances, they warned, would be distrust and suspicion in an ANC caucus, which was already facing its roughest ride since 1994. Her words would cause the securocratic President Zuma to shine a spotlight on individuals and encourage divisive ratting by those who wanted to prove they were not plotters, they feared.
Mbete’s behaviour is a glimpse into the positioning and jockeying in the upper echelons of the ANC. It might give many the cold shivers, but she does still harbour ambitions to live at Mahlamba Ndlopfu. What is not clear is where she will build her private home with its fire pools, chicken runs and ecological soil-retention walls.
Just more than two years before the ANC goes to the conference where it will elect Zuma’s successor, the field is as open as it can be – at least in the eyes of those eyeing the top position. For the first time since the ANC was unbanned in 1990, almost all in the top six believes the top job can be theirs. There is a sense that Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa is not home and dry. Even Zuma is said to believe he can serve an extra two years in the party, until the 2019 general elections.
In this flux, even Gwede Mantashe, who was not a politician and did not have political ambitions before he was elected secretary-general in 2007, is suddenly in the mix. As is the smart but unexciting treasurer-general, Zweli Mkhize. There are other wannabes, including the veteran Jeff Radebe and the one-smile-a-year Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who also sees the current flux as an opportunity to aim for the high prize.
It is no wonder then that an Mbete can believe the juiciest high-hanging fruit is within her reach. But the fact is that it is hanging very low right now. So low, even she can reach to pluck it.
Maybe it’s the fact that [Mbalula] doesn’t believe what he wants us to believe