Newsmaker: Mantashe – baas van die plaas*
The most popular man in the governing party speaks
When ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe was elected to his position five years ago, a teacher from his Boksburg community outside Joburg phoned to congratulate him.
When the praise-singing became too much for him, Mantashe stopped her in her tracks and asked: “So teacher, what are you going to contribute?”
Five years later, Mantashe handles congratulatory messages with more grace and answers several phone calls during our interview, including one from his friend and fellow communist, Blade Nzimande, with jokes and laughter.
The ANC’s elective conference in Mangaung this week confirmed that Mantashe is the most popular man in the party – not new deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, not even President Jacob Zuma.
The voting tally shows Mantashe got more votes than either of the two men received for their positions.
Is he happy with the way the elections turned out?
“I was a bit disappointed at the outcome. I would’ve liked to see continuity at the top,” he says.
There were meetings, he says, where party leaders tried to convince former ANC deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe not to contest Zuma for the top job and instead continue in his position as second in charge.
“But if you can’t convince someone, you can’t convince them,” Mantashe shrugs.
Apart from this blip on the conference, Mantashe is clearly elated at being re-elected.
He doesn’t like losing.
A trade unionist by profession, he stood in 1987 against media mogul Marcel Golding as deputy secretary- general of the National Union of Mineworkers.
“I lost by 20 votes. Marcel got 572 and I got 552.”
It took place more than 27 years ago, but Mantashe tells it as if it happened yesterday.
It was not always clear he would be returned to his current position either, he says.
“Do you remember at the height of Julius (Malema), people were saying they don’t want me? But I just continued working. I travelled to almost every region of the ANC to go sort out problems.”
Mantashe graduated from Wits four years ago with a master’s degree in industrial sociology after he completed his junior degrees in commerce.
“I felt I understood accounting and economics, and it was time to learn about lateral thinking.”
In the ANC, this skill was essential during his first five years as secretary-general.
He had to manage the fallout from the Polokwane leadership elections and the recall of President Thabo Mbeki – an experience he describes as “painful” in the organisational report he presented to the Mangaung conference.
He also had to manage his own reputation in the party and take a stand against his own supporters.
“People would call me and say they are being marginalised because ‘we support you and Zuma, come help us’.”
Mantashe would dutifully get on a plane to the relevant branch or region, but when he got there he realised his supporters were in the wrong.
“Then I had to tell them: ‘Don’t use my name to cover your wrongdoing’.”
This approach was not appreciated by everyone, but it earned him respect.
“At the end of the day, they knew when there was a problem in a branch, I was the one who arrived.”
What next for Mantashe? A shot at the presidency, perhaps?
He doesn’t answer the question directly, saying he likes to farm instead.
An old mud-splattered Toyota Land Cruiser was parked this week outside the Protea Hotel in Bloemfontein where Mantashe was staying.
City Press asked to photograph him with his prized bakkie, but Mantashe’s son was using it at the time.
“That bakkie can take a bull. I have a herd of cattle and a flock of sheep,” he explains proudly.
He will spend the festive season on his farm in Elliot, Eastern Cape.
He’s also aiming to do a PhD eventually and maybe try his hand at lecturing, he says.
Do you want the top job, I ask again.
“When you are SG (secretary-general), you are at the top. Why would I want to go higher?” he says with an enigmatic smile that suggests he’s not completely opposed to the idea.