David Mabuza and Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: SIMPHIWE NKWALI
David Mabuza and Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: SIMPHIWE NKWALI

David "DD" Mabuza is the cat who got the cream as he ascended to the second-highest position in the ANC — deputy president. At 57, he assumes the post at the same age President Jacob Zuma did in 1997.

It is hard to shake off Mabuza’s words when he came back from nearly 50 days of sick leave in 2015 after being poisoned. "The cat is back," he proclaimed.

Like Zuma, Mabuza claimed he was poisoned. He said at the time that he had "let his guard down at a birthday party" and suffered from a long and painful illness after that.

The long-time ANC Mpumalanga chairman positioned himself and his province perfectly as kingmakers of the party’s 54th conference. He beat his opponent, Lindiwe Sisulu, with 2,538 votes to her 2,159.

He played the game so deftly that he obtained the highest number of votes for the top six positions in the party — more even than new ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa.

He had overwhelming support from branches ahead of the conference and was expected to grab the deputy presidency no matter who became president.

This could be the country’s Mussolini moment. Mabuza has been running Mpumalanga’s ANC structures with an iron fist; he is used to being the big boss. Will Ramaphosa be able to control him?

This is the man who, ahead of the conference, managed to convince the majority of Mpumalanga ANC branch members not to nominate a party president but instead spoil their ballot by voting for "unity".

Mabuza had been playing both sides of the race for the presidency of the party, refusing to throw his weight behind either Ramaphosa or Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

His command of his province was on display at the Mpumalanga ANC national general council: when he told delegates to sing, they sang; when he said be quiet, they hushed up.

He was part of the so-called Premier League, a once strong lobby group in the ANC who were staunch supporters of Zuma and were expected to support Dlamini-Zuma as well. However, after the 2016 local government elections, when the ANC lost three metros to the opposition, Mabuza realised the party was in trouble.

Speaking at an ANC fundraising dinner in September, he urged the party to "go back to basics" and back to its values.

"What you have done in Polokwane, what you have done in Mangaung, it can’t be repeated. I’m standing here as if I was not party to that … but to be honest with you, I was an active participant," he said, referring to the governing party’s two previous elective conferences.

He made a stark admission that, even though his faction had won at the two conferences, it did not realise the damage it had caused the ANC.

"We caused huge damage. What we were doing was wrong. We could have tried to unify the movement instead of entrenching factionalism, so today, factionalism is the norm," Mabuza said, suggesting a change of heart. "The movement has cracked. Let’s get out of that thing, let’s liberate ourselves. Liberate ourselves, go back to basics, our values."

Ostensibly the biggest rift in the Premier League was around the Gupta family and its hold on Zuma and state institutions — and their conflict with his business backers.

North West ANC chairman and premier Supra Mahumapelo and Free State chairman and premier Ace Magashule, who was elected secretary-general, have defended the family, but Mabuza is said to be wary of the Guptas — particularly after former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas revealed that the family had offered him the position of finance minister.

When the conference started on Friday, it was not clear who Mabuza would support, but he was photographed attending a Dlamini-Zuma caucus meeting and rumours circulated that he had instructed his delegates to give their "unity vote" to her.

But it seems Mabuza struck another deal, or was pretending all along. Dlamini-Zuma’s backers on Monday night accused Mabuza of "betrayal", saying he had promised them votes they required to ensure their candidate won but instead delivered them to Ramaphosa.

Now Mabuza is one step away from the presidency.

He has been a premier since 2009 and a member of the provincial legislature since the dawn of democracy in 1994.

He will complete his term as Mpumalanga premier in 2019, and if the ANC wins the national vote in the general elections, he will move to the Union Buildings in Pretoria.

Mabuza’s political career started in the mid-1980s. He is a teacher-turned-politician who, from 1984 to 1985, was the secretary of the Azanian Students Organisation. He was also a South African Democratic Teachers’ Union chairman for three years. He was elected ANC regional chairman in 1994 and, in 1998, joined the party’s Mpumalanga provincial executive committee.

Mabuza’s political game is just beginning. The immediate question is: will he stand with Ramaphosa to clean up the mess by his former ally, Zuma, or will he be creating another?

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