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South Africa’s Deputy President Mabuza returns from sick leave in time for cabinet reshuffle

By Carien du Plessis
Posted on Wednesday, 4 August 2021 18:25

South Africa's Deputy President David Mabuza in Cape Town, South Africa, February 27, 2018. REUTERS/Sumaya Hisham

South Africa's deputy president David Mabuza is back after five weeks of sick leave, and his absence co-incided with one of the most violent episodes since democratic rule in 1994. He re-appeared just in time for a long-overdue cabinet shake-up, rumoured to be due in a few days' time.

Mabuza’s office earlier in the week confirmed he would be back at work on Wednesday after announcing on 26 June that he “will undertake a visit to the Russian Federation for a scheduled medical consultation”.

There has been no independent confirmation that he actually ever left South Africa, but his plane was spotted on Flightradar making its way from Johannesburg to his home in Mbombela (the old Nelspruit) in Mpumalanga province on Wednesday morning (4 August).

His office hinted that this was related to his poisoning in 2015, which he said happened when he “let his guard down” during his birthday celebrations. A political rival has been privately claiming that Mabuza – whose nickname is ‘The Cat’ – unknowingly ingested his own poison meant for the rival.

Another source hinted that Mabuza also had serious liver issues.

His spokesperson Matshepo Seedat recently said he would “rely on his medical team to clear him to travel back to South Africa”. She added: “He is doing very well.”

Looting in his absence

While Mabuza was absent, widespread violent looting, arson and protests took place in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng provinces, which left over 300 people dead. It was described by President Cyril Ramaphosa as an “insurrection” which was “intended to cripple the economy, cause social instability and severely weaken – or even dislodge – the democratic state”.

The violence followed the imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma for disregarding a court order compelling him to testify before the inquiry into large-scale corruption under his watch.

Should Ramaphosa have been forced to stand down as president during this time – perhaps in the unlikely event of Parliament passing a motion of no confidence – Mabuza would have stood to benefit.

Cabinet changes on the cards

Ramaphosa has been under pressure from his political supporters within the governing African National Congress as well as from civil society leaders to speedily effect the Cabinet reshuffle that has been expected since August last year.

It is reported that such a reshuffle had twice been postponed in the past four months as Ramaphosa had to deal with, amongst others, issues within the ANC and the fall-out around media revelations about Health Minister Zweli Mkhize’s alleged involvement in a corrupt communications contract.

The riots have exposed weaknesses in Ramaphosa’s security cluster after a squabble between the police and state security ministers about a lack of prior intelligence.

At least two members of the executive have died in the past year, and their positions have been vacant, while Mkhize, who has been suspended, is also likely to be dropped after his family members have allegedly benefitted from a corrupt tender issued by his department.

The Special Investigating Unit had finished its report on the matter and it’s currently being dealt with by Ramaphosa, while news web site Daily Maverick on Wednesday revealed how Mkhize’s son and daughter-in-law used alleged kickbacks to start an upmarket nail and hair salon.

Mkhize is considered to have been one of the better ministers, but Ramaphosa has made it clear that he would not tolerate corruption and is forced to make good on that now.

Some within the party said Ramaphosa could not reshuffle his Cabinet without Mabuza present as he is the head of the ANC’s “deployment committee”. Although Cabinet appointments are Ramaphosa’s imperative alone, the power balance in the ANC is somewhat precarious and he would want to keep Mabuza and other party leaders close.

Mabuza has in the past acted unpredictably, for example, he switched allegiance at the last minute in 2017 to support Ramaphosa’s election as ANC president at the time.

Details still sketchy

“A reshuffle seems certain, probably Friday,” an ANC insider said on Wednesday.

Business Day newspaper on Wednesday reported that Ramaphosa initially had only small changes to his Cabinet in mind, but after a meeting with the ANC’s top leaders in the 26-member national working committee on Monday, insiders now believe a major shake-up is in the works.

Ramaphosa told the committee there had to be “accountability” and “consequence management” for the violent riots. There’s also been speculation that he would use this as an opportunity to streamline Cabinet in order to save money.

An insider close to Ramaphosa said he had asked for “handover reports” from a number of ministers, including two in his security cluster. One of these, State Security Minister Ayanda Dlodlo, laughed it off as a rumour when approached for comment.

Finance minister Tito Mboweni has also been under fire for the slow progress made in the recovery of the economy following a harsh Covid-19 lockdown last year. Although he has appeared reluctant to do his current job – even making the odd flippant comment on Twitter – it is said that Ramaphosa is struggling to find someone who is able and willing to replace him.

One insider has rumoured that Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma was destined for Mkhize’s old job, as she is a medical doctor herself and served in this portfolio in Nelson Mandela’s first cabinet from 1994 to 1999.

When firing and appointing ministers, Ramaphosa has to strike a fine balance between competence and politics. For example, if he fires a woman and replaces her with a man, he’s likely to invite criticism from the ANC Women’s League as well as from within his own party, which has been pushing a 50% gender quota.

There is also an unspoken rule of appointing equal numbers of ministers from all provinces, to keep his own power base safe and avoid unnecessary resentment.

Questionable land deals

Mabuza is likely to retain his job, even though Ramaphosa theoretically has the power to reshuffle him, too. As the ANC’s deputy president, Mabuza is as good as elected to his government position, too.

Mabuza has, however, been entangled in a long-delayed corruption case involving a land deal in his home province of Mpumalanga while he was a member of the provincial government there about 13 years ago.

The case was supposed to start last month, while Mabuza was absent, but it was postponed until this week. While those involved in the case believe Mabuza had a hand in the irregular land deal, he has not been directly implicated in the case and it was learnt this week that his name had since been removed from the list of witnesses.

Mabuza is in charge of critical government projects such as the turn-around of the ailing state power utility Eskom and the roll-out of Covid-19 vaccines, which this month picked up considerable pace to almost hit daily targets – despite his absence.

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