It comes as no surprise that ‘Mbeki man’ Joel Netshitenzhe, aka Peter Mayibuye, has resigned. After 15 years in the presidency, the Zuma administration offered little comfort. Moshoeshoe Monare reports
THERE was neither a partridge nor a pear tree for Joel Netshitenzhe in the Christmas of 2007 as the goodwill he had received up to then dried up. Each year, his Christmas bonanza doubled with the birthday gifts he got on December 21 from well-wishers who mostly thought their names would be remembered in the presidential corridors because of his proximity to former president Thabo Mbeki.
But as Mbeki’s power slipped away in Polokwane, so did the gifts under Netshitenzhe’s Christmas tree. And this Christmas looks even gloomier for him – no job and fewer presents for his 53rd birthday.
Though Netshitenzhe personally laughs off the “exaggerated” close relationship with Mbeki, the former president relied on him for policy conceptualisation as much as Nelson Mandela depended on him for political strategy and propaganda.
But a former Mbeki official – who did not want “publicity” – says Netshitenzhe is not a blind loyalist. He once stormed into Mbeki’s office and confronted the former president on his alleged Aids denialism.
However, Netshitenzhe is regarded as an Mbeki protégé, or what writer Mark Gevisser calls “Mbeki’s ideas man”. He was Mbeki’s flak catcher, policy interpreter and thoughts communicator.
His ideological opponents in the ANC still view him as Mbeki’s alter ego.
He was so deeply entrenched in the Mbeki camp towards Polokwane that he reluctantly accepted nomination as chairman of the ANC, 10 years after refusing to stand against Jacob Zuma for the position of ANC deputy president in Mafikeng. Netshitenzhe was defeated as chairman in 2007 by Baleka Mbete.
When he resigned this week after spending 15 years in the presidency, he could hardly escape the shadow of his long-time friend and comrade, Mbeki. Some sympathisers believe he was purged because of associations with him.
His presence in the new Zuma administration, after surviving four presidents, rattled those who wanted to bury the ghost of Mbeki.
Cosatu, in its congress discussion papers, was blunt, saying some in the presidency were nudging Zuma to the centre-right, a tacit reference to Netshitenzhe and Planning Minister Trevor Manuel.
Even though Netshitenzhe wanted to trudge on with his work as a civil servant, differences in style and form were bound to cause a lot of tension.
In an interview with the Tribune this week, he was diplomatic, guarded, evasive and – in his hallmark style – spun his way out of trouble.
It was clear that he was restructured out of the job, and that differences in policy outlook, especially on the planning commission that caused ructions in the government, were a trigger. He denies this.
But he admitted that there were discussions about the location and functions of entities such as his political baby – the policy co-ordination and advisory services in the presidency – and the deployment of “a person as senior as myself ”.
“In the process of those reflections, it was agreed that it might be necessary for me to leave office,” he says, describing it as “a prototype of mutually agreed termination of service”.
Netshitenzhe says some of the functions of the policy unit fell between ministers in the presidency – Manuel and Collins Chabane.
With the planning commission still a subject of intense debate and Zuma talking a policy shift and restructuring, it seems Netshitenzhe’s unit was rendered redundant.
He, however, says he is still part of the ANC’s policy-making process,
intending to attend the party’s economic transformation committee meeting on Friday.
He prefers not to talk about what he is going to do next. But he does not do corporate chit-chat or golfcourse, deal-making leisure.
With his management confined to government, business might be a tough terrain for him.
He hated the politician’s life of bodyguards and entrapments of protocol. Perhaps he might venture into academia or research.
He found himself on the wrong side of history as the Left’s influence in the ANC and, to a degree, in the government, required openmindedness about policy contestation.
He is seen as central to policies such as Growth, Employment And Redistribution (Gear) and the Accelerated Shared Growth Initiative, which sparked the ideological rupture in the ANC alliance and were loathed by the Left.
He penned the controversial 2007 ANC strategy and tactics document, triggering a fierce response from the Left who saw it as nothing but an attempt by a sophist bulldozing them into accepting the capitalist system.
He has always been the chronicler of unpopular strategic position papers – from the O R Tambo-sanctioned negotiation rehearsal paper in the 1980s to reminding a militant ANC of the necessity to call off sanctions in the early 1990s.
He never shied away from intellectual confrontations, once descending to the young lion’s den to tell the ANC Youth League’s senior leaders that they were an irritation. But Zizi Kodwa, now Zuma party spokesman, said then that they moered Netshitenzhe.
At the height of the succession tensions, Netshitenzhe accepted Cosatu’s invitation, reminding the union that their support for Zuma was motivated by a phuma singene syndrome, a banal illustration of power struggle motivated by material benefits.
Even after Polokwane, he refused to shut up, reminding the Left their intention to fire Mbeki before elections was opportunistic, provoking a ferocious response from SA Communist Party leader Jeremy Cronin.
Netshitenzhe is described as a policy guru, the ANC’s own thinker, Mandela’s backroom boy and Mbeki’s policy ally. But he speaks his mind.
His strategic tentacles reached every facet of government.
A government official once told me no SA president could survive without Netshitenzhe. He was wrong, it seems. But no one seems to be saying “good riddance”.
Zuma said Netshitenzhe’s name “is synonymous with government communications as well as efficient and effective policy-making over the past 15 years”.
ANC treasurer-general Mathews Phosa says he has “great admiration for Joel”.
Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi says, “We like Joel, even if we disagree with him. He has a style of wanting to engage. But he has become more conservative as he grows older.”
Vavi’s observation partly reflects the paradox and contradictions in Netshitenzhe’s political career.
He left South Africa as a militant Khathutshelo Netshitenzhe with a penchant for mopane worms, known in exile as freedom fighter Peter Mayibuye, and returned as Joel Netshitenzhe, allergic to the worms.
He left the country, to become a Soviet-trained communist who stayed with Chris Hani in Lesotho. Years later he was labelled a neo-liberal conservative after he acquired economics qualifications from the University of London.
He entered Mandela’s office with a tie and full black Afro, and he will exit Zuma’s office at the end of the year with Cuban shirts, sport jackets – and balding.
Unassuming but sarcastic and intellectually arrogant, he can be an ideological snob, once reminding guests at a meeting in Pretoria to leave their “isms at the door”.
A defender of media freedom in South Africa, after spending years on Radio Freedom and as editor of an ANC journal, he was brutal in his response to senior black journalists critical of Mandela.
He was a ruthless spin-doctor when still head of the government’s communications outfit. He is an ideological foe but an intellectual sparring and smoking partner of SACP leader Blade Nzimande.
He bunked classes at Mphephu High School in Venda for a tipple, but obtained distinctions in physics and chemistry from the University of Natal – before skipping the country in his first year during the 1976 turmoil.
While at home in Fourways, Joburg, or his Limpopo village of Sibasa this Christmas, Netshitenzhe might want to reflect on the evolution of his movement, his sacrifices and vulnerabilities, and that he is perhaps dispensable after all.