Mosebenzi Zwane. Picture: SOWETAN
Mosebenzi Zwane. Picture: SOWETAN

Mosebenzi Zwane, the minister in charge of mining in the dying days of the Jacob Zuma administration, is the perfect emblem of the ANC’s constipated leadership transition.

The mining industry was disappointed and angered by the speech Zwane made at the Mining Indaba in Cape Town. But what did they expect? He has been a worse than useless minister from the start, with his recklessly destructive approach to the mining charter and a refusal to engage properly with the industry, which he clearly regards as an enemy.

Zwane has done nothing to show even the most basic understanding of this complex and vital sector. The Chamber of Mines, after being routinely ignored and insulted by the minister, refuses to talk to him. Chamber CEO Roger Baxter, not a man given to intemperate language, has said: "The challenges in the regulatory environment in 2017 were arguably the worst the mining industry has ever experienced." Zwane’s unilateral implementation of the charter in June last year did "immense damage", said Baxter.

What was significant about Zwane’s address was not its lack of meaningful content but his manner. Not helped by a hoarse voice, he came across as an automaton, mouthing the empty language of bureaucrats. He didn’t even pretend to be interested in the event or in his portfolio.

Politically, he knows he is a dead man walking. The withdrawing tide of the Zuma administration is further exposing Zwane and other incompetent and possibly corrupt ministers like him. They were appointed not for their competence or integrity, but for their loyalty to Zuma and their willingness to do his dirty work — or at the very least to turn a blind eye to it.

Zwane is now likely to face criminal charges linked to the scandal of the Vrede dairy project, where R200m of taxpayers’ money meant for farming was laundered into a Gupta family account and eventually used to pay for a lavish wedding at Sun City. This much is documented, and Zwane knows it. Vrede is his home town, and the farm project was supported by him when he was agriculture minister in the Free State.

As long as Zuma was in charge, the Zwanes of the cabinet were untouchable. Now they are not. Some of them have become very touchable indeed — in close range of police and prosecutors, and ultimately prison warders.

The law enforcement authorities have also scented the wind, and they know it will soon be blowing in a different direction. However much Zuma manages to delay his departure, his power is draining away and everyone can see this.

Some ministers understand the political game — Malusi Gigaba at finance comes to mind — and are making sure they keep their options open. After all, Cyril Ramaphosa, the heir-apparent for the presidency, is shrewd enough to know he cannot purge, or refuse to appoint to office, everyone who was loyal to Zuma. But there will be several who will not only be impossible to reappoint to the cabinet, but will get no protection from the law.

Such is the enormity of the Gupta scandal that it seems many ANC ministers have not yet grasped it. They are in denial. It is like walking into your house to find a rhinoceros in your lounge. A rat or a cockroach one can acknowledge and deal with — faced with a rhino, one’s only reaction must be to go into another room and pretend it does not exist.

Zwane’s performance at the indaba suggests he is the public face of those ministers who ignored the rhino and its dangers, and are now facing reality.