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Just how far can Gwede Mantashe go in pushing the limits of what is acceptable behaviour for a Cabinet minister? His recent actions suggest he does not feel the same boundaries, or is bound by the same rules, as other Cabinet ministers, writes Stephen Grootes.

Since his appointment as Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy, the Chair of the ANC, Gwede Mantashe, has appeared to display a certain pattern. Elements of this pattern involve him making comments or policy statements which are not entirely aligned with the stated policy of President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Recent events may cement the claim that he is able to do things other Cabinet ministers cannot. Which may also suggest he is acting in this way because he can. Which could have implications for how the power held by Ramaphosa should be assessed.

In June, at a ceremony to mark the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the Prime Ministers of Denmark and the Netherlands, Mantashe was noticeable by his absence. As the Sunday Times reported, this was deliberate. He knew about the ceremony, and decided not to attend. In the end, the document was signed by Dirco Minister Naledi Pandor.

Then, in his response to the discovery that about 30 illegal mine workers had died underground at Virginia in the Free State, he said in an interview that Lesotho was guilty of “economic sabotage”.

It appears these actions may form part of a pattern which is becoming more established.

Mantashe has confirmed in response to journalists’ questions that the reason he did not attend the signing ceremony is that he “does not sign documents I have not seen”. He also denied challenging the authority of Ramaphosa, saying the only reason that he had not attended was because he hadn’t read them yet.

While not signing any document until you have read it is good advice for life, it is not clear that this is always practical in government (or for people buying a cellphone contract). For many people in high office around the world, it is unlikely that they have read every word of every document they have signed.

This is why governments employ so many lawyers.

Also, Pandor was happy to sign the document. Does this mean that she had taken the time to read it, or that she was happy to sign a document she had not read? Particularly one tying her country to an agreement with other countries. And why had Mantashe not taken the time to read the document, if he knew this ceremony had been planned.

Then there are Mantashe’s claims around Lesotho. There does appear to be some evidence that many of those involved in illegal mining, particularly in the Free State, are from that country (in this case, the Lesotho Prime Minister’s spokesperson, Thapelo Mabote, has told SAfm that one of their nationals told their consulate in Welkom that his countrymen had died—this was the first report on the incident).

And for the minister in charge of our mining sector, it must be incredibly frustrating that people from another country are breaking the law in his sector. He is also quick to say that this is not straining relations with Lesotho.

But it is also hard to entirely accept Mantashe’s point. After all, there is no evidence at all that this is deliberate action by Lesotho. As Mabote points out, the people who buy the products from these illegal miners are not in Lesotho; they are in South Africa.

Lesotho’s Foreign Minister Lejone Mpotjoane told Newzroom Afrika that Mantashe’s words were “unnecessary and harsh”, and that said in that way, or to use the word ‘sabotage’, means that “it is a formal or government-led activity”.

Of course, there is no evidence to show that it is a government-led activity. It is rather the result of poverty and porous borders both in Lesotho and in South Africa.

Certainly, it is fairly rare to see a Cabinet minister (who is not the Dirco minister) speaking in this way about another country.

This follows Mantashe’s actions in legally challenging the findings of the Zondo Commission that he received a gratification from Bosasa in court. This may well fly in the face of the ANC’s publicly stated aim that it is embarking on a process of renewal after the State Capture Inquiry.

But for many, the most telling display of this pattern has been Mantashe’s consistent public statements supporting coal-fired electricity generation. While he denies fighting renewables, this has given the impression that he is trying to help the coal industry at the expense of the country’s economy.

His repeated statement, that Eskom could stop load shedding simply by fixing all of its power stations, has led to intense criticism from some who claim he does not understand the scale of the problem.

And of course, his statement that Stage 6 loadshedding was akin to Eskom “agitating for the overthrow of the state” led directly to the resignation of the utility’s CEO, André de Ruyter. That, in turn, led to the claims and counterclaims about an intelligence report he procured.

All of this could point to a pattern of behaviour by Mantashe. It could suggest he does not feel the same boundaries, or the same rules, as other Cabinet ministers. Certainly, while he denies disputing Ramaphosa’s authority, it seems unlikely other ministers would refuse to sign such an international agreement on the grounds that they had not yet read it.

However, this is also very much in keeping with Mantashe’s political history.

He was able to often chart his own way while secretary-general of the ANC, and despite often being seen as supporting former President Jacob Zuma, he also created the system which allowed Ramaphosa to defeat Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma in 2017.

Also, it appears that his actions around the Phala Phala scandal late last year, where it appears he played a role in saving Ramaphosa’s presidency, may give him a certain independence that other ministers may lack. Ramaphosa may almost now be dependent on him.

However, there may be some signs that this pattern cannot last forever.

Firstly, there is the narrow victory he won in the election for the position of ANC chairperson in December last year. He won 2 062 votes, while Stanley Mathabatha received 2 018. This suggests he does not have a huge mandate in the ANC. He himself said after the election that this would be his last term in the ANC’s top leadership.

Then there is the appointment of Kgosientsho Ramokgopa as the Minister in the Presidency for Electricity.

While Mantashe retains some of the legal powers he had over the procurement of electricity, just having another minister in this space must dilute some of his power.

Certainly, the fact that Ramokgopa is almost hyperactive in the public debate around electricity generation (holding briefings almost every week) must dilute Mantashe’s voice on this issue.

What is clear is that Mantashe has political power, and is prepared to use it. He has immense experience, and has often been able to take situations to the brink, to then ensure the outcome that he desires. This is seen in the fact that when his current ANC term ends, he will have been in its top leadership for 20 years, a feat almost unheard of since democracy (possibly matched only by former president Jacob Zuma).

It also means that those who believe he could be pushed out of power, or somehow weakened in the near future, could find themselves disappointed. And, if he continues this possible pattern of behaviour, it may only embolden him to go further to achieve his aims.

Stephen Grootes is the host of the Sunrise show on SAfm. He’s been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner.

This article first appeared on Daily Maverick and is published with permission.