South Africa’s enforcer king: Why President Ramaphosa can’t sack energy minister Gwede Mantashe

By Audrey Simango

Posted on Friday, 10 February 2023 13:30
African National Congress (ANC)'s Gwede Mantashe in Johannesburg on December 21 2017 AFP PHOTO / GULSHAN KHAN AFP PHOTO / GULSHAN KHAN

The saying goes in South African politics that you don’t go up against ANC veteran Gwede Mantashe and come out unscathed.

A long-standing Secretary General, and now national chairman, of the ruling ANC, he has earned the title of enforcer in both the Zuma and Ramaphosa presidencies.

Now he is seen by many as the politician who determines the fate of the ailing power utility, Eskom.

Big businesses, environmentalists and opposition parties castigate Mantashe’s energy policies yet President Cyril Ramaphosa is said to see him as untouchable.

It’s hard to see how Ramaphosa could have secured the presidency without Mantashe’s backing.

Mantashe, 67, has seen it all in South Africa’s interlocked web of trade unions, big business and big politics.

A trade unionist who cut his teeth as secretary general in the National Union of Mineworkers, the pro-coal, militant union that’s a vital cog in the ANC ruling party.

“He stands tall. During Zuma’s presidency of South Africa, Gwede Mantashe was the country’s de facto prime minister, not afraid to purge the president’s enemies, and running the party’s headquarters,” Kudakwashe Magezi, a political analyst, tells The Africa Report in Johannesburg.

“Under Ramaphosa’s presidency, Gwede’s staying power has seen him become the elder enforcer; he is even feared by other cabinet ministers close to the president.”

Mr Coal

It is Mantashe’s current role as the minerals and energy minister that has rattled local and foreign companies, his gate-keeping role in South Africa’s attempt to end coal and embark on de-carbonisation of its economy.

In the run-up to the COP26 climate summit in Scotland in 2021, envoys from the EU, US, Britain and Japan were negotiating an $8.5bn package with South Africa to speed the transition from coal to renewable power.

It had seemed that a deal would be signed quickly until Mantashe flexed his powers. He described the proposal for South Africa to give up coal as “economic suicide”.

He argued that rich nations have the luxury to give up coal and transition their economies to renewables but that’s a non-starter for South Africa where the coal industry supports 80, 000 jobs.

Such was Mantashe’s defiance of Western climate envoys that at one stage he ignored their requests for a consultation, then chose to drive out of the capital Pretoria to address a pro-coal meeting in a rural province.

“Gwede is stubborn, he is Mr. Coal in South Africa, and, on coal, he doesn’t even give a damn what the president says. Such is Gwede’s aggressive fondness for coal in South Africa,” says independent economist Carter Mavhiza in Pretoria.

Such is the difference in coal between President Ramaphosa and Gwede Mantashe that in June 2021 the president overruled Mantashe. South Africa would welcome applications by independent power producers who want to produce their own electricity and move away from coal.

Big business was jubilant, thinking that Gwede, the ‘coal man’ had been sidelined. But then they saw how few applications from independent power producers have been approved.

Last week, Mantashe expressed surprise at the lack of applicants seeking permission to produce their own power from renewables. There was no “appetite” he insisted.

“He’s cunning; very skilled, he thrives in pitting the president against big business and vice-versa for his own benefit,” says Mavhiza of Gwede Mantashe.

He’s cunning; very skilled, he thrives in pitting the president against big business and vice-versa for his own benefit.

The Eskom card-holder

Because of that track record, some in Ramaphosa’s cabinet fear and loathe Gwede Mantashe. They are horrified by the recent proposals by the ANC to take away Eskom, South Africa’s massively failing electricity utility from the public enterprises ministry and move it to Mantashe’s energy ministry.

That proposal, which could sail through after Ramaphosa reshuffles his cabinet, has refocused attention on Mantashe. Rumours abound of deep hostility between Mantashe and Pravin Ghordan, minister of public enterprises and another key Ramaphosa ally. Gordhan is the minister who is currently managing Eskom and doesn’t want to see it land on Mantashe’s lap.

“Eskom is Mantashe’s prize baby, he’ll bring his sharpest arrows to frighten anyone who wants to stop the power company from being transferred to his ministry, and that includes the president,” says Magezi.

Mantashe has been involved in a very public feud with Andre De Ruyter, the beleaguered Eskom CEO. Mantashe has publicly called Eskom a saboteur out to topple the government via power cuts designed to agitate citizens.

But De Ruyter has plenty of other enemies, especially the criminal cartels which have been sabotaging Eskom’s power stations. On the day De Ruyter resigned as Eskom chief, there was a poisoning attempt against him.

“Mantashe’s fear is that President Ramphosa and the public utilities minister want to privatise Eskom, unbundle it and sell it to private equity owners. If that happens, his coal-union political base will vanish overnight,” South Africa observer Yasin Kakande tells The Africa Report.

Mantashe: albatross on Ramaphosa’s neck?

Ahead of President Ramaphosa’s cabinet reshuffle, there is much speculation about Mantashe’s fate – but few expect to lose power and influence.

“Gwede Mantashe is the ultimate political enforcer Ramaphosa is so unsure whether to keep or fire, he just fears making a rushed decision on Gwede,” Magezi says.

In December when Ramaphosa was an inch away from being forced out over a money-laundering scandal, Mantashe became the president’s chief defender publicly attacking a judge, and telling the media that Ramaphosa had a right to stash millions of dollars under his sofa because that’s his private money.

“Gwede is quick to roll down to the mud to defend whichever South African president curries his favour. He did it with Zuma, now it’s for Ramaphosa. Whoever is president in South Africa must have Gwede’s backing,” Kakande argued.

Economist Mavhiza says Ramaphosa has a stark choice in the reshuffle: “Fire Gwede as minerals minister, he becomes the ANC party chairperson full time and probably allies with ambitious deputy president Paul Mashatile to thwart and degrade Ramaphosa. Keep Gwede close in the cabinet with Eskom under his charge, then you anger big business and the West significantly.”

President Gwede?

It’s unclear whether Gwede Mantashe harbours hopes of winning the ANC’s presidency but “…..President Ramaphosa must suspect that Gwede is beta-testing a future grab at the top job; the president’s very job,” adds Mavhiza.

Gwede’s chances of the ANC presidency are hampered by a checkered past, says Kakande.

In February 2022, the judicial inquiry into the State Capture grand corruption saga during Zuma’s years cited Mantashe for aiding corruption and receiving pricey home upgrades from a corruption-accused businessman.

The enquiry has recommended that law enforcement agencies investigate Mantashe for criminal prosecution. Mantashe has laughed off the accusations as stupid.

“If Ramaphosa wants to get rid of Mantashe, he has the option of using Mantashe’s skeletons to scare him off. But again, Ramaphosa has his own cup full of scandals. This means Ramaphosa needs Gwede for a long time into the future,” added Kakande.

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