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uthuli House, sixth floor. It’s stuffy in the most pow­er­ful po­lit­i­cal head­quar­ters in the coun­try.

From the board­room ta­ble, ANC sec­re­tarygen­eral Gwede Man­tashe eyes a pho­to­graph of Che Gue­vara.

“My he­roes,” the ANC strong­man says, point­ing to pho­to­graphs of Nel­son Man­dela and Fidel Cas­tro.

“But my great­est he­roes,” he points to al­most life-sized pic­tures of Oliver Tambo and Man­dela in Umkhonto weSizwe cam­ou­flage, “are those two. Com­man­ders of MK.”

Both lawyers. You won­der what they would say about Man­tashe’s ap­proval of the gov­ern­ment dis­re­gard­ing a court or­der.

Against the other wall is a 1913 pho­to­graph of a black cat­tle herder. “It re­minds me of the year we black peo­ple had our land ex­pro­pri­ated.”

This is Man­tashe’s world, four walls that re­mind him of who he and the ANC are.

From this room full of revo­lu­tion and nos­tal­gia, Cab­i­net min­is­ters are or­dered about, po­lit­i­cal in­sid­ers say. Here, the real de­ci­sions are made. No Cab­i­net mem­ber makes a big an­nounce­ment un­til it has been dis­cussed at this ta­ble.

Man­tashe (60) is the most pow­er­ful man in the ANC, it is said. In the left­ist tra­di­tion, the sec­re­tary-gen­eral is the one who con­trols the party. Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma is the gov­ern­ment leader, the head. Man­tashe is the party chief, the neck. And the neck turns the head, an an­a­lyst ex­plains.

It’s Man­tashe’s umpteenth in­ter­view this week. Is it a charm of­fen­sive? But ev­ery time he says some­thing about the courts, he fu­els fires.

On Carte Blanche, he crit­i­cised the high court in the Western Cape and North Gaut­eng’s “neg­a­tive nar­ra­tive” against the gov­ern­ment.

“It’s true,” he nods at me. “It’s al­ways the Western Cape and Pre­to­ria.”

It’s not be­cause Par­lia­ment is in the Western Cape and the Union Build­ings are in Pre­to­ria? “No,” he says. “Cer­tain sec­tions are be­hind it.” “It’s akin to a coup,” he says of Judge Dun­stan Mlambo’s rec­om­men­da­tion that crim­i­nal pro­ceed­ings be con­sid­ered against the Cab­i­net for al­low­ing Omar al-Bashir, pres­i­dent of Su­dan, to leave the coun­try.

“Imag­ine,” he looks at me sternly, “the Cab­i­net pros­e­cuted, locked up – it’s a coup. The dec­la­ra­tion of a state of emer­gency, it is to­tally out of the judge’s power! It’s a po­lit­i­cal state­ment!” But courts are about laws, not pol­i­tics, I ar­gue. “That’s where you’re wrong. You think judges fall out of the sky with­out be­ing in­flu­enced by so­ci­ety.”

Man­tashe’s crit­i­cism is based on “ju­di­cial purism”, which, he says, “does not ex­ist in real life”. The al-Bashir de­ci­sion is sim­i­lar to an or­der that he live on top of Luthuli House for two weeks. “It can’t be im­ple­mented!”

On Planet Man­tashe, thus, “court or­ders like this will from time to time be dis­re­garded”.

“Can you imag­ine the con­se­quences if we had kept al-Bashir here? War with Su­dan. We will be­come a pariah state, just like with apartheid.”

But al-Bashir should never have been al­lowed into South Africa in the first place.

“Since 2009, he had been in 11 coun­tries with­out any fuss. But we are ruled by ju­di­cial purism,” he says with a gri­mace. “We think we are an ex­cep­tional coun­try that does things in an ex­cep­tional way!”

That’s ex­actly what the world thought about us and our Con­sti­tu­tion 20 years ago. The very same Con­sti­tu­tion the ANC, ac­cord­ing to grow­ing per­cep­tion, is dis­re­gard­ing more and more.

“Who says so? No, no, no. How wide is that per­cep­tion ac­tu­ally? It’s just a mi­nor­ity who as­sume they are a cul­tural ma­jor­ity. They mo­nop­o­lise public de­bate, tram­ple over the ma­jor­ity like ants un­der their feet.” The courts are over­reach­ing, he re­peats. What ex­actly does he mean? “It’s when a court starts dic­tat­ing rules to Par­lia­ment –

by it’s o-ver-reach-ing.”

Congress of the Peo­ple leader Mo­siuoa Lekota slated the ANC in Par­lia­ment.

“You lis­ten to Lekota? Why don’t you lis­ten to [na­tional ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee mem­ber] Obed Bapela?”

He waves his fin­ger. “You only lis­ten to Lekota be­cause he crit­i­cises us.” Ac­tu­ally, that’s what the whole wide world is do­ing. “How wide is that? Does it ex­clude Africa? Be­cause then you’re one of those who sub­scribe to the the­ory that South Africa is closer to Europe than Africa, which looks through the eyes of the Euro­pean Union and Amer­ica. It is a dan­ger­ous nar­ra­tive that those with power are al­ways right...”

Is he wor­ried about the spirit of dis­il­lu­sion­ment in the coun­try; the fear that ev­ery­thing is col­laps­ing?

“You put too much em­pha­sis on what the elite say. We [the ANC] re­ceived more than 60% at the polling booth. In any other coun­try, it is over­whelm­ing sup­port. But the nu­mer­i­cal mi­nor­ity, the elite, talk about dis­il­lu­sion­ment.

“I go to ev­ery province, spend time in the small places. There you see dif­fer­ence in their lives. So if you think ev­ery­thing is fall­ing apart, you are part of the priv­i­leged.”

Un­til last year, Man­tashe was a voice of rea­son from Luthuli House, says a po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst. But he is now beat­ing an un­crit­i­cal drum. If you have am­bi­tion, that’s what you do in the Zuma cul­ture of pa­tron­age: you keep your mouth shut.

So, does Man­tashe have pres­i­den­tial am­bi­tions, or is he con­tent with sec­ond place be­hind Deputy Pres­i­dent Cyril Ramaphosa?

In his own cir­cles, Man­tashe is seen as a rough diamond, with­out Ramaphosa’s pol­ish. He rolls up his sleeves, he con­trols the masses.

But says a trade union­ist who has known him for 20 years, peo­ple un­der­es­ti­mate Man­tashe, like Soviet dic­ta­tor Joseph Stalin was once un­der­es­ti­mated.

“No­body thought Stalin would take over. But Stalin, like Gwede, was in con­trol of the party ma­chine, he knew how the en­gine worked. He made it work for him.”

One part of the Free­dom Char­ter’s “un­fin­ished busi­ness”, says Man­tashe, is land re­form.

The white farm­ers, he says, are cling­ing to their priv­i­leges. “That dream that the land should re­main in white own­er­ship ... that’s a dan­ger­ous dream.” But we have long passed that. “We are still there, largely.” Says who? “Ev­ery black South African wants ac­cess to land. If we do not move with land re­form, if we do not ra­tio­nally sup­port it, those at the ex­treme pe­riph­ery will take over the land by force. And then I wish you all the best.” I ask what he thinks of Afrikan­ers. “They must be­come part of the South African com­mu­nity. Get away from the idea of the cho­sen peo­ple they were in the past. A large part of them still think so, stuck in the past.”

I take a last look at Che and Cas­tro, the MK com­rades in bat­tle fa­tigues. I see walls speak­ing louder about yesterday than to­day.

Also just stuck in the past.


Gwede Man­tashe

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