Sunday Tribune


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.

 ??  ?? Joel Netshitenz­he, the government’s policy co-ordination chief, has resigned.
Joel Netshitenz­he, the government’s policy co-ordination chief, has resigned.

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