04/12/2017 15:48 SAST | Updated 05/12/2017 12:05 SAST

David Mabuza: The Master Political Entrepreneur

The Mpumalanga premier created the mould of political entrepreneurship more readily associated with President Jacob Zuma.

Graphics24/Theuns Kruger


In a strategic powerplay, David Mabuza has been propelled to national significance but an analysis of his history will show that he wrote the playbook of political chicanery that Zuma deploys. Mabuza has inveigled himself into the role of strategic broker for the ANC national elective conference, which gets underway in Johannesburg on December 16.

Mabuza this week told City Press: "If you can master the shenanigans, you can lead." He and Zuma are both grand masters of shenanigans.

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Mpumalanga Premier David Mabuza.

How did he do it? Mabuza has bulked the ANC in Mpumalanga, which he leads as provincial chairperson. The province will take 739 delegates to the conference –- the second highest number after KwaZulu-Natal, which for the size of Mpumalanga is a whopping number. On Monday KwaZulu-Natal nominated Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as president, with Mabuza as her deputy -- he even got more branch nominations than the presidential candidate.

A master of numbers

Mpumalanga is home to only four million South Africans, but its importance to the ANC is now stratospheric after Mabuza torpedoed the Eastern Cape from its second position. In doing so, he has upended the history of the ANC which was christened in the Free State but which has always been a movement of the Eastern Cape.

To understand Mabuza's gargantuan effort to balloon Mpumalanga in the ANC, it's worth looking at the fact that Gauteng's population is about 12 million people but the province takes just under 500 delegates to the December conference.

Prior to putting Mpumalanga on a carb-loading diet, Mabuza also shored up the support of the ANC Youth League and the ANC Women's League, which means that his sway over the conference is even more significant as the two leagues probably count about 120 votes between them. By knowing how to play to numbers game like a fox, Mabuza reveals that he is a leading political entrepreneur.

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African National Congress (ANC) members gather outside the North Gauteng High Court in support of the Premier of Mpumalanga; David Mabuza during the hearing of a civil claim case between him and Mathews Phosa on May 12, 2016 in Pretoria, South Africa.

He told City Press at the weekend that "where Mpumalanga goes, you will win", showing deftly that he holds the cards at the conference. Some analysts say this may be overblown as his Team Mpumalanga may vote differently when cutting loose in Johannesburg. But that he is one of South Africa's most powerful men for the coming fortnight is in little doubt.

Who is David Mabuza?

Mabuza was born in Brondal in Mpumalanga in 1960.

The young David Mabuza joined the anti-apartheid forces in 1986 when the ANC leader and future Mpumalanga premier, Mathews Phosa, recruited him into the United Democratic Front (UDF). Mabuza was a teacher and, by all accounts, was good in the classroom and passionate about education. Phosa recruited Mabuza as his MEC for education when he was premier and then axed him when Mpumalanga's highly inflated matric results caused a national scandal.

But that did not faze Mabuza, who began the second phase of his political career.

Gallo Images
President Jacob Zuma has a moment of laughter with the Mpumalanga Premier; David Mabuza during the Kruger National Park land claims settlement ceremony on May 22, 2016.

Climbing the ANC tree

Mabuza has earned his dues in the ANC and has served in numerous roles as he climbed his way to kingmaker. He served as a regional chairman for the ANC between 1994 and 1998 and became a member of the Mpumalanga legislature in 1999 (a position he still holds today) and an MP in Parliament two years later. He was elected Leader of Government Business in the Mpumalanga Provincial Legislature in 2007 and in the same year, was voted onto the ANC's National Executive Committee (NEC).

His ascent to the political helm of the province started when he was elected deputy chairperson of the ANC in Mpumalanga in 2005 and he became the chairman in 2008.

Phosa and Mabuza have since become estranged: now sworn political enemies, the two last faced each other across a courtroom in 2015 when Mabuza sued Phosa for defamation. Phosa penned a memorandum to the ANC headquarters accusing the premier of having been an apartheid spy. Mabuza lost, but he is now much more powerful in the ANC than his erstwhile supporter and mentor.

Now for national office

There is no doubt that Mabuza is holding out for high office –- and no lower than that of deputy president of the ANC and of the country. He is courting Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma's campaign and it is happy to make him Prince Charming because the numbers show that she is behind race favourite Cyril Ramaphosa.

Up until this point, it may all seem fair political game. Mabuza has played the numbers game like a maestro. And his formal political career shows steady service to the ANC. But to develop a better understanding of what Mabuza would do if he takes a national role, look east, not to China but to Mpumalanga.

The Wild East

Mabuza became Mpumalanga premier in 2009, the same year that Zuma became President. He is the businessman premier who quickly cottoned on to the fortunes that can be made from commandeering provincial budgets through cultivating a layer of loyal business people.


Through the years, the extent of Mabuza's enrichment has leaked out: the story that R14 million in cash had been stolen from his farm at Barberton; family and friend-linked companies which have won huge provincial contracts and the dosh that has sloshed around to maintain a friendly media corps in the province. In his book, "Eerie Assignment", City Press journalist Sizwe sama Yende has captured the story of Mabuza and Mpumalanga in colourful and often terrifying detail –- his book christens the province "The Wild East".

Yende reports on the full history of Mpumalanga, a province that is young but infamous. After the matric marks and other early scandals, including one where a MEC hocked all the province's magnificent national parks to a Dubai-based investment company, it earned the moniker of "Mamparalanga". But soon mirth turned to death.

Mabuza is an astute politician: his programme of building stylish rural schools is both interesting and popular while he maintains a programme close to the ground and to his people.

A national commission of inquiry was instituted under former national police commissioner Bheki Cele to look into political hits in Mpumalanga because assassinations had become so regular. The most infamous is that of the Mbombela speaker Jimmy Mohlala, who was taken out because he blew the whistle on massive corruption related to the building of the R1.2 billion Mbombela World Cup 2010 stadium.

A bureaucrat called Sammy Mpatlanyane was killed, many believe due to the same investigations. Prior to this, the long-running story of local politician James Nkambule had gripped Mpumalanga with claims that a shadowy character called "Josh" had been paid to take out political opponents of Mpumalanga's dominant faction. While "Josh" has never been revealed, Nkambule was found to have died by poisoning.

Mr President?

Mabuza is an astute politician: his programme of building stylish rural schools is both interesting and popular while he maintains a programme close to the ground and to his people. He is a populist and popular premier with his eye on a national position. Mabuza's house is called "state house" and his Barberton home is called "The Farm" -– both are places of power and intrigue.

The nomenclature of his official abode being called "State House" suggests that Mabuza has his eye on the big prize –- the presidency. At 57-years-old, he is young. And if you think that idea is preposterous, the story's been told before.

Once upon a time, a wildly popular but venally corrupt provincial politician decided he wanted to be president. Today, he is President Jacob Zuma. Mabuza and Zuma are flip sides of the same storybook.

An earlier version said David Mabuza was the son of Enos Mabuza. He is not. We regret the error.