On September 6 1966, in the assembly chamber of parliament in Cape Town, a deranged messenger, Dimitri Tsafendas, stabbed and killed apartheid prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd.
Minutes later then defence minister, and later prime minister and then president, PW Botha, stormed across from the other side of the house to confront the sole member of the liberal opposition, Helen Suzman.
As Suzman recounted in her memoirs: “He stopped opposite me, shook his finger at me and yelled in Afrikaans, “It’s you who did this. It’s all you liberals. You incite people. Now we will get you. We will get the lot of you.”
Botha did not “get” Suzman, who went on to serve in parliament for 23 years afterward. But his refrain would be repurposed, on August 18 1987, for a similar target, from the height of his presidency and by the time SA had sunk into the depths of emergency rule when the struggle against his system reached its apogee.
Also speaking in parliament, Botha delivered — according to a New York Times account of his speech — “a wide-ranging attack on foreign and domestic journalists, saying that left-wing newspapers and agencies would have to be investigated and dealt with”.
Referring to the worst offenders as “the so-called alternative media”, he charged that these publications “unashamedly support leftist and radical groups … practising propaganda to further a revolutionary climate under the pretext of journalism”.
Like the now fire-ravaged assembly and parliament these events and remarks are best consigned to the footnotes of memory. Except for the fact that there is now a new version of this ugly rhetoric and scapegoating of “liberals” for the very failures of a profoundly illiberal state.
Botha’s version of it used repression laced with personal vitriol to mask policy missteps and political recalcitrance. Gwede Mantashe bestrides the current profoundly illiberal and failing ANC administration like a political incarnation of the ancient Greek Medusa legend.
She was a mortal Gorgon who converted from a mermaid into a monster. All who met her terrible gaze were said to be turned to stone, until heroic Perseus figured a way round her defences and slew her.
Mantashe, with his honourable role in the struggle against apartheid, has himself undergone a conversion into a latter-day Gorgon in the mould of PW Botha — he lashes opponents, real and imagined, castigates “liberals”, clings to the carcass of dead policy, champions fossil fuels and denies the ineluctable facts that have plunged the country into enervating power outages.
And he refutes the science that offers solutions to the crippling crisis. He even conjures up his own myths, accusing selfless and harassed public servants such as Eskom’s exiting André de Ruyter of being treasonous.
Consider the evidence. On January 19 in Business Day energy expert and electrical engineer Hilton Trollip wrote a coruscating critique of Mantashe’s misrule as energy minister, concentrating on his serial failures to add renewable energy to the electricity-starved grid.
Among the bill of goods cited by him was Mantashe’s unscientific and evidence-free statement that “we can give 101 permits to renewable energy and it will not solve the problem”.
Trollip, by contrast, cites an impeccably credentialled study that if 5GW of wind and solar had been added to the grid by 2021, which has been under the monopolistic control of Mantashe’s government for 28 years, then “96.5% of load-shedding could have been avoided in that year”.
Mantashe, whose department oversees generation capacity and its procurement, has not, in four years at the helm of energy, added a single new megawatt of capacity to the grid, while the catastrophic reduction of transmission has seen Eskom’s notional 45,000MW collapse to an effective 25,000MW.
On the same day Mantashe gave a wide-ranging interview to News24, in which he resiled from any personal or ministerial responsibility for the crisis but did double down on “the usual suspects”. According to the report, in full Botha mode he “lashed out at liberal analysts and journalists who wrote rubbish in the media”.
Mantashe also took aim at the COP funding for renewables — a case of biting the generous hand of R130bn in funds and loans, stating that “SA needs to free itself from encirclement and jumping every time Europe talks”.
One intrepid European, Financial Times correspondent Joseph Cotterill, proved in a devastating expose how Mantashe’s departmental lethargy and sloth is not simply confined to policy he opposes (renewables), but also embraces policy he actually supports (gas). He cited the 2022 case of a proposed gas power plant championed by Eskom that would add 3,000MW to the grid, to be sited at a KwaZulu-Natal port with both gas and grid capacity.
The application by Eskom sat on Mantashe’s desk for six months until he forwarded it to energy regulator Nersa, which took another six months to — amazingly — turn it down. Nersa cited Mantashe’s unilateral insistence that other state companies be added to the mix as one reason. Cotterill correctly indicates that “the state companies that would benefit from supplying gas to Eskom come under the energy ministry. And it looks like it hijacked Eskom’s proposal to indulge in some empire building.” And to turn on more patronage taps?
Courtesy of an ANC conference resolution all this manoeuvring may be unnecessary. Going forward the resolution proposes collapsing both Eskom and energy into one department, headed by Mantashe.
Into this toxic brew one might ask where Mantashe’s appointing authority, President Cyril Ramaphosa, is in all this. Given the severe crisis of credibility he faces with unmet target dates and unfilled promises to end load-shedding as it is ramped up, all he can do is performative.
A cancelled trip here, appointing another committee there, allowing warring ministers to duke it out in assigning blame for a catastrophe that at root has a return address: the office of the president of SA.
A few weeks ago another holdover from the apartheid administration, Adriaan Vlok, died. He was a controversial minister of law and order in the administration of president FW de Klerk. But during the height of the negotiation’s standoff, and on evidence of third force activity by the police, De Klerk — under pressure — sidelined both him and defence minister Magnus Malan.
SA now faces a crippling crisis of a different order, but in Mantashe’s view one also with the capacity to collapse the state. Will Ramaphosa, beholden as he is to Mantashe for his recent ANC conference victory, have the courage and will to act as a political Perseus and remove Mantashe from his strangulation of both energy and its supply?
The evidence to date does not make the answer to this question as obvious as it should be.
• Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs a communications company.