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.