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22/12/2017 06:05 SAST | Updated 22/12/2017 06:48 SAST

Mathews Phosa: David Mabuza’s Biggest Dilemma Is His Crisis Of Credibility

"The ANC has introduced a culture of immunity for people who are corrupt. It punishes the whistleblowers but it promotes and protects the corrupted."

Mathews Phosa.
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Mathews Phosa.

Mathews Phosa, the accomplished Afrikaans poet and ANC veteran, uses an Afrikaans idiom about pigs to describe the election of his party's top six. "Meng jou met die semels en die varke sal jou opvreet." If you mix with the bran, the pigs will eat you. He is worried about his old friend with a good heart, Cyril Ramaphosa, and what he has sacrificed to become president -- the dangerous deals he has done with dubious characters all out of desperation.

If there is anyone who can give unique insight into the election of the ANC president and deputy president, it is this man. He has known Ramaphosa intimately for over 40 years having met him when they were both law students in Turfloop at the University of the North in the '70s. Together, they were once accused of plotting a coup against their president. That is a lot of history to share. Phosa was also literally the person who recruited David "DD" Mabuza into the ANC when he was a student. They were in the same underground cell together and Phosa appointed Mabuza as an MEC when he became premier of Mpumalanga.

When we meet in the lounge of an upmarket Rosebank hotel on the last day of the Nasrec conference, the former ANC treasurer-general is wearing an ANC T-shirt. He says he will die ANC, even though many have reason to believe he has sour grapes. He threw his hat into the race for the presidency of the party this year and failed. He also declined nomination for the NEC, saying he's too busy with business.

Phosa has a lot to say and he's open, outspoken and candid about the two men who now hold the top positions in the ANC.

He speaks fondly of a young Mabuza, who wasn't politically aware but was groomed for higher office. "He was very quiet, very reserved, very apolitical. We needed to infuse serious politics into him and he was receptive. DD was very reserved like he still is now. He speaks when he needs to speak. He listens more."

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But when Phosa went into exile, their relationship changed and it seems the older man still holds a grudge over it. "When I left for exile under those difficult conditions when I was about to be assassinated, many, in fact, all comrades who were in cells in the underground contacted me, found a way of reaching me in exile. He was the only one who did not. The only one!" laments Phosa.

Then came the allegations that Mabuza was an apartheid spy and was working for the state. "When we came back from exile, there was a problem. Jo Nkuna and many, many cadres who were at the forefront, said: 'Don't touch DD, we don't touch him, he works for the system'. They said so! They didn't want me to work with him. I came from exile politics. Everybody was suspected of being a spy. I said, guys, let's not rush without evidence. But I couldn't push away suspicions. There's a name for him. They call him 'De Kock'. Because they accuse him of having been involved with Eugene de Kock in the murders of comrades who I could mention by name. It is known in Mpumalanga. His other nickname is De Kock. There was this vibe but I still refused to grab gossip."

Mabuza sued Phosa for defamation after he publicly made these claims against him. The case was thrown out of court.

Despite the suspicions, Phosa appointed Mabuza as his MEC for education in Mpumalanga in 1994 when he became the premier of the province. He wasn't his first choice, but the teachers wanted him. "He came to the ANC office at the time driving a rusted van. I met him. Since exile, I had never met him because I was not allowed to meet him because he was not trusted by the structures. I said you are going to be MEC for education. He was very shocked."

"My organisation is on its knees. It needs repairs." Mathews Phosa

Phosa praises Mabuza for his knowledge of the education system and structures but he says he remained dubious about DD. Rightly so, he believes, considering the scandal that blew up in 1999 when it emerged that matric results had been inflated in the province.

"It was dramatic," Phosa laughs, still astonished at what happened. "They were cooked up, hey. Badly! Thabo Mbeki arrived in the province that morning and said: 'Chief, is this real? It doesn't sound real'."

Phosa reveals that he actually bumped into his former mentee turned political nemesis at Nasrec and taunted him about this."I was reminding him about it at the conference. Ah, you remember that scandal. These things are going to worry you in future. I mentioned that to him."

Phosa believes Mabuza's biggest dilemma is his crisis of credibility. He is not trusted because there are simply too many scandals surrounding him. "There's been too many stories about R14-million cash at his house, about him bribing other ministers who are still ministers today serving," he drops this in, mentioning the name of a very high ranking minister. "There's many, many stories, many tenders, the land issues when he was MEC of agriculture. DD is engulfed in tender scandals. He's engulfed in this cloud of scandals and let me tell you it's going to follow him where he is today. Some of the truth will come known even better. He's no longer in charge of the province. People fear him. They talk about the killings in the province, when they talk about them, they link them with him.

"I think we expect him to drive good governance, respect the Constitution, respect the rule of law, I think there's an issue of credibility with him. The people don't trust DD because of all these gossips about corruption. He's going to have to establish credibility as a human being. I don't know how he's going to turn around things and make people trust him tomorrow."

Phosa's sympathy is with his old university friend, who now finds himself in danger of being eaten by the pigs. However, he does think Ramaphosa brings a better "smell" to the ANC. "I really feel sorry for comrade Cyril. He's inherited some of the difficult personalities. I think Cyril is going to find a lot of internal resistance when he finds corruption. He's got a duty to investigate all the allegations of state capture. You've got people there who are linked, whose names have been implicated with the Guptas. Both Ace and DD have had something to do with the Guptas. Are they going to allow him to do it?" Phosa worries.

Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters
Newly elected president of the African National Congress (ANC) Cyril Ramaphosa speaks at the end of the 54th National Conference of the ruling ANC at the Nasrec Expo Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa, December 20, 2017.

He has an ominous warning for Ramaphosa, that he will have to keep his guard up. "I think Cyril must clean his own stable first of top six. He must check these guys and satisfy himself that every one of them will not compromise his position as President. All of them, he must check them. Cyril has got a good heart and they must not abuse that good heart. Cyril can take action if he has got to take action. And the country must expect that from him. I just fear that this combination will be dysfunctional from the beginning. I fear that. It's a compromise of you vote me for, I vote for you. It's not principled. Nothing principled guided the combination of the so called 'unity' slate. Nothing. It was more about you give me power, I give you power. There's no principles."

Phosa is undoubtedly a veteran of the ANC. He was one of the first four members of the ANC to enter South Africa from exile in 1990 in order to start the process of negotiations with the National Party government. He is surprisingly upfront about how it has deteriorated and its current state.

"My organisation is on its knees. It needs repairs," he exclaims. "People are losing trust and faith in the ANC. They don't trust us. They think the ANC is synonymous with corruption. The ANC has introduced a culture of immunity for people who are corrupt. It punishes the whistleblowers but it promotes and protects the corrupted. It feels like that. If you look at Muthambi, Bathabile, all these ministers who are surrounded by many funny allegations. They survive, they get promoted, they get protected!"

He admits that under the current leadership elected at Nasrec, the party that he has given his life to will not win the next elections outright. He is worried that Jacob Zuma has left the ticking hand grenade of free tertiary education in Ramaphosa's pocket.

"I don't think the ANC will win the 2019 elections. It's a tough call to think we will win. Cyril will make a lot of changes, but to build trust in a political organization that is 105 years old, it took almost that period to build that trust. It takes a shorter time to destroy it and we have destroyed it. So what does Cyril do in twelve months? He can only try his best. I think it needs to be repaired. We should support Cyril. I feel that Cyril must be given a chance and the country must give him a chance, everybody must give him a chance. And we will support him. I think South Africa needs a change and if he can, let him be that change."