Thoko Didiza and the locusts

ANTHONY BUTLER: Swarm of ageing ANC women points to Didiza to deputise


First published in BusinessLive

19 May 2022

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s first term has been punctuated by plague, riot, drought, fire and flood. It was little surprise to discover last September that enormous swarms of brown locusts had descended on the country.

After such biblical turmoil the re-election of the once theologically-inclined Ramaphosa to a second term as ANC president seems inevitable.

However, speculation is growing over who will take on the role of deputy president. David “The Cat” Mabuza, the incumbent, is as dead as a dodo. His health is ropey and the delegate pool for his old province, Mpumalanga, is shrinking and unreliable.

What are the requirements for would-be new applicants for the job? First, Ramaphosa cannot freely impose a deputy of his choice. If party chair Gwede Mantashe or treasurer-general Paul Mashatile kindly offer to be his deputy, he will probably have to say no, because they bring too few fresh delegate votes.

Second, Ramaphosa has a KwaZulu-Natal problem. Retired health minister Zweli Mkhize is likely to dominate the province in December. Although he will not secure the presidency, he might lever his support to bargain. Better — indeed essential — for Ramaphosa to fill the KwaZulu-Natal vacuum directly and pre-emptively.

Third, the prophet Isaiah famously lamented, “O My people! Their oppressors are children, and women rule over them” (Isaiah 3:12). However, since the ANC is not explicitly guided by a general principle that women should not lead, Ramaphosa will look for a credible female deputy.

The outcome of the 2017 national executive committee (NEC) elections tell us something about this particular candidate pool. The top ranked women, Reginah Mhaule and Violet Siwela, are Mabuza apparatchiks who are unlikely to return.

The once highly rated Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma enjoys appeal in KwaZulu-Natal and AU-acquired seniority, but she is already 73 years old. She could quite possibly lose the ANC the 2024 elections, even in the deputy role, and her Zuma branding is no longer alluring. Ageing scions of great ANC dynasties such as Lindiwe Sisulu and Naledi Pandor are also too advanced in years to hold out the tantalising hint of presidential succession that the position requires.

Bathabile Dlamini, Nomvula Mokonyane and Tina Joemat-Pettersson have suffered lapses of judgment that have come too much to the attention of the good ladies and gentlemen of the press. Working-class treasure Zingiswa Losi is a perfect fit for deputy secretary-general, but certainly not for the deputy presidency.

Intellectual giants such as Ayanda Dlodlo, Neva Makgetla and Gwen Ramokgopa, who populate the very bottom of the NEC list, were drafted in not to lead but respectively to read, count and keep an eye on the other two NEC intellectuals.

A trawl of the current NEC pool therefore throws up just two compelling female candidates: defence minister Thandi Modise and agriculture minister Thoko Didiza. Much has been written about the Modise, a former North West premier, formidable parliamentarian, so-so pig farmer and capable government minister.

But Modise only came in 35th in the 2017 NEC elections while the younger Didiza was elected at 21, served successfully as a minister as long ago as Mandela’s government, and made a remarkable comeback after she was kicked off the NEC at Polokwane.

Didiza nominally hails from KwaZulu-Natal, and she is helpfully a steadfast loyalist of the recently rehabilitated former Supreme Being and/or Higher Power Thabo Mbeki, and a long-standing board member of his presidential foundation.

What of the determinedly hungry plague of locusts that has spread across much of the countryside? Didiza has taken a characteristically robust attitude: ground teams and helicopter crews armed with insecticide and spray pumps have been deployed to wipe them out.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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