A former schoolteacher who’s been linked to a succession of scandals in South Africa has emerged as a likely kingmaker in the contest to decide who will become the next leader of the ruling party and probably the country.
David Mabuza, who calls himself “the cat” because of his political survival skills, emerged as a power broker within the African National Congress by signing up tens of thousands of new members in the rural eastern Mpumalanga region where he is the party’s chairman and provincial premier. As a result he’ll lead the second-largest voting bloc to the ANC’s national elective conference that begins on December 16 and ends December 20 in Johannesburg.
The contest pits Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa against Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, President Jacob Zuma’s ex-wife and the former chairwoman of the African Union Commission. While Mabuza persuaded 223 of the party’s Mpumalanga branches to opt for a consensus leader rather than endorse anyone, neither of the two contenders are likely to withdraw and he’ll hold considerable sway over who they will eventually back.
“The fight is going down to the wire,” Susan Booysen, a political science professor at the University of Witwatersrand’s School of Governance in Johannesburg, said by phone. “A few hundred votes could be crucial at the end of the day. Mabuza has multiple stakes in the game. He can be the kingmaker.”
Mabuza, 57, who is widely known by his initials DD, said in a December 1 interview that the ANC needs to avoid a bruising leadership battle that could cost it support in 2019 elections. Backing for the party, which has ruled since Nelson Mandela led it to power after the end of apartheid in 1994, already slumped to a record low in last year’s municipal vote. Support fell because of widespread discontent over Zuma’s leadership and allegations that he allowed members of a wealthy family who are in business with his son to influence the awarding of cabinet posts and state contracts.
Mabuza, who’s been one of Zuma’s staunchest allies and helped him fend off repeated calls to resign, has had a checkered political career himself. Since he took over as Mpumalanga premier in 2009, he’s been accused of helping to rig state tenders and having his opponents silenced and even assassinated — accusations he has denied.
Mabuza says his opponents tried to kill him by poisoning his food at his birthday party in 2015, and he spent several months undergoing treatment in South African and Russian hospitals.
He has a personal stake in the ANC’s election — he’s been nominated as the party’s deputy president by all four provinces that backed Dlamini-Zuma for the top job, but could also use his clout in Mpumalanga to bargain his way onto a Ramaphosa-led slate. He denies having ambitions for higher office and says he will merely do as the ANC instructs him to.
The strong backing Mabuza commands among the ANC’s rank-and-file members has helped him cement his position within the party, despite the misgivings about his integrity, according to Lukhona Mnguni, a political analyst at the Durban-based University of KwaZulu-Natal.
“The ANC is faced with a significant moral dilemma,” Mnguni said. “It’s a party that over the years has sacrificed integrity for expediency. The reason why Mabuza is there is because of the branch numbers he has from his province.”
The ANC’s next leader will also be its presidential candidate in the 2019 elections. Should Mabuza secure the party’s deputy presidency, he stands a good chance of becoming its leader in 2022 or 2027 and the nation’s leader thereafter.
Mcebisi Ndletyana, a politics professor at the University of Johannesburg, sees Mabuza’s political rise as evidence of the moral decay that he says has set in among the ANC’s leadership.
“He is a menacing figure and a provincial baron, who is not a fan of law and order,” Ndletyana said by phone.