About five months ago, Premier Mabuza fell gravely ill, but he’s back in form and as ferocious as ever
settlements department had his whole management team dismantled after Mabuza said they were “politicking” and failing to meet deadlines and targets to build RDP houses.
A former MEC, who declined to be named, differs with Nyoni about Mabuza’s “kind-heartedness”.
“No. If he was, he could not have destroyed so many comrades and derive joy from doing so. He’s just paranoid and narcissistic. Everything is about himself,” he says.
“He’s like a child who catches a fly, clips its wings and lets it walk. No comrade has been empowered by him because he gives and he takes. But he has a sweet charm. There’s a time when he charmed and made me drop my guard, and that’s when he’s dangerous.” A few weeks after the ANC’s birthday party, I’m sitting opposite Mabuza at Nutting House Lodge, 5km outside Mbombela. He’s been chairing a government lekgotla involving nine provincial departments and 23 municipalities for the whole day, but has agreed to a one-on-one interview. Later on, he changes his mind. Exhausted, he sees three journalists at once. Mabuza raises the issue of his illness again, sharply this time. His eyes bulge, incandescent with anger. The Hurricane is raging and his spokesperson, Zibonele Mncwango, uncomfortably fiddles with his pen.
“I got questions from you!” Mabuza says, pointing at me, “while I was at the lowest point of my life in hospital.
“I was surprised by your behaviour. I didn’t know that you hate me so much that not even one of you wished me well while I was lying on a deathbed. Does it matter now to talk about what I went through?” he says, gesticulating wildly.
After he calms down, he tells us how he fell ill last September while celebrating his 53rd birthday at his rural birthplace of Phola village near Hazyview. He started sweating, suffered from diarrhoea and lost weight rapidly. He insists he was poisoned.
“There might be people who are my enemies. Some of them I disciplined. I’m not sure of the environment in which I live and work. Doctors said I ate something,” he says.
He says he is a leader today because of God’s intervention.
Of all the multitudes of legends that have been told about Mabuza, none about piety has ever come up. He has been accused of ruthlessness, but never of being a religious man.
“It’s not because of our making that we’re chosen as leaders … Somewhere there is God’s intervention … There’s divine intervention all the time,” Mabuza says.
A stifled smile flits across his face as I ask a flattering question: “How have you managed not to lose a single conference despite having so many established political activists as your opponents and despite so many scandals?”
Mabuza replies: “I attribute that to loving people. I have a big heart and I’m forgiving and honest.” Loving people, yes, there may be truth in that. Despite what his rivals and former allies say, Mabuza is loved by ordinary people. He foregoes sleep to receive people from all over Mpumalanga at his home who come to raise ANC branch issues or ask for assistance like bursaries for their children.
Two years ago, he started the David Mabuza Foundation to offer educational funding and build houses for the poor.
Mabuza denies dispensing patronage, or having stacks of cash in his house, or playing chess games with allies who he uses and dumps in the political wilderness.
“The behaviour of my deputies [in the ANC] Charles Makola and, recently, David Dube changed. I think it was ambition and they did certain things for people to vote for them. I never dump people, that’s not correct.”
He has publicly stated that he was accused of ordered the assassination of political rivals and corruption-busting comrades, such as Mbombela speaker Jimmy Mohlala, who blew the lid on corruption regarding a World Cup stadium tender. So did he? “No,” Mabuza replies. “One day,” he says, “people will get clarity when they lay hands on privileged information I have about the political murders. Just remember the name Project January 8. This individual bought people to kill people and allege that I killed them. They wanted me arrested … to be out of the way.” Mabuza cuts the interview short. To try to get another, I write him an email apologising for being a journalist first and not wishing him a speedy recovery while he was in hospital. This appealed to him, and he personally confirmed receiving my “love letter” when we briefly met the next day at the lekgotla.
I wanted to ask him about his poor upbringing in Phola, his work as a maths teacher, how he entered politics, his imminent national role in the ANC and his many scandals.
I also wanted to ask him about two of my favourite projects of his: the four state-of-the-art boarding schools he built for children of farm workers, and the commission of inquiry he recently appointed to investigate the working conditions of farm labourers. He’s the first premier to tackle this issue.
Phola village, between Hazyview and White River, is a mishmash of rickety, modest and grandiose homes. Underdeveloped and dusty, the village’s first proper streets are now being built.
Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) posters dominate walls, street poles and tree trunks.
Aside from Mabuza, the village is home to two other prominent Mpumalanga leaders: ANC Youth League deputy president Desmond Moela and EFF provincial leader Collen Sedibe.
Phola’s residents rarely see Mabuza or his latest wife, Pam Golding estate agent Patience Mnisi, nowadays – except on his birthday, which he celebrates with village children.
Trying to understand his political upbringing, people point you to the Monareng family.
I speak to Sipho Monareng, who rose to prominence with the Save Mpumalanga ANC faction, Mabuza’s staunch opponent. Monareng, who also bit the dust when trying to unseat Mabuza, has now joined the EFF.
Mabuza was very close to Monareng’s elder brother, Themba. As a teacher in the 1980s and 1990s, Mabuza was active in teachers’ union Sadtu.
“He was a very humble person,” says Monareng of days gone by. “And a leader who wanted things to be done in an orderly way so that the organisation couldn’t be compromised. He talked harshly with me for being naughty as a politically active high school pupil with a tendency for organising violent civil disobedience campaigns.
“Today, I see many strange things about him. He has changed, but the politics in South Africa has changed too.”
Monareng reminisces that when he came back from exile, Themba was popular among ANC branches, and they had to convince him not to stand against Mabuza for the position of chairperson of the Nelspruit region in 1995, simply because Mabuza was his political senior.
“He was not contested in that conference,” Monareng says. From then on, Mabuza has been entrenched in the ANC’s leadership.
And he has yet to lose a conference.
THE HURRICANE David Mabuza is notorious for being a ruthless politician who destroys opponents and dumps the closest of his allies when they are no longer useful to him
COMRADES David Mabuza and President Jacob Zuma during an election rally at Embalenhle Stadium on April 22 2014 in Secunda
NINE LIVES Mpumalanga Premier David Mabuza (right) outside the North Gauteng High Court during the hearing of his civil case against Mathews Phosa last week
David Mabuza in 2014