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South Africa’s minister of public enterprises should be cross. He should be tapping his foot and looking at his watch. His team has been waiting for nearly an hour for diplomats to arrive so that a press conference can begin. Instead, Malusi Gigaba smiles and tells an anecdote about Nelson Mandela.

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“Apparently, Madiba arrived at one African Union meeting on time — you know how he is about being punctual. Hours later, they [the delegates] started strolling in and the meeting started. Just then, he called a point of order and he berated them like they were children!” Gigaba laughs good-naturedly.

In an environment defined by gutter politics, Gigaba has emerged as a gentleman politician and could not be more different from his successors in the ANC Youth League, which he once led.

“He doesn’t get personal. He talks about the issues and doesn’t make ad hominem attacks,” a team member told me en route to the press conference in Pretoria North.

It is a claim borne out by recent events. The youth league’s secretary general, Sindiso Magaqa, lambasted Gigaba in August last year for speaking out against the league’s push for nationalisation, sniping that “the only thing known about some people is government flowers”, in reference to Gigaba spending — in error he claimed — R1 000 of departmental money on Valentine’s Day flowers for his wife in 2007.

Magaqa’s statement would come back to haunt him this year when it was added to a list of charges by an ANC disciplinary committee. He would eventually apologise to avoid suspension. And whatever Gigaba did behind closed doors to turn the situation so wholly to his favour, we’ll never know. He never retaliated publicly.

The quiet minister making waves
Where once Gigaba’s critics scorned his meek demeanour, the “keep-your-head-down-and-work” attitude is helping him make waves leading one of the country’s most important ministries with startling energy, while his detractors in the league face political wilderness for their bullish behaviour.

A few years ago, very few would have tipped the unassuming then-deputy minister of home affairs for higher office. His was a quiet watch as the longest-serving youth league president, from 1996 to 2004, and he earned the unflattering epithet of lapdog to then-president Thabo Mbeki.

Then, in November 2010, “Black Star”, as Gigaba was affectionately called by ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe in reference to his dark skin, received the call that would transform his life. President Jacob Zuma axed his public enterprises minister Barbara Hogan and put in place the more like-minded Gigaba: Someone who would also look east to China for inspiration; who would align himself to ANC priorities and take the whole developmental state business seriously. Someone who would take the messy state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in hand and manage them closely, dispensing with the notion of rubberstamping board decisions.

Someone like Gigaba.

Destined for high office?
“He was hungry for this position,” a member of his team said. “If the ANC was smart, it would use him more.”

That may well be the plan. Gigaba did the impossible and was loyal to both Mbeki and Zuma, being favoured by the latter despite his former status as an Mbeki man.

Now there is talk of Gigaba making it into the “top six” of the ANC at the party’s Mangaung conference in December.

Yet his team is aware that the game of political favour is a fickle one. “We could well be the ones told to pack up and leave when the next reshuffle happens,” said one philosophically.

It may explain the fierce drive that has characterised Gigaba’s time as minister. The irony is that although he spoke out against the “generational mix” mooted by the league, Gigaba has emerged as a youthful minister with boundless energy, coupled with a fierce attention to detail.

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“He is a teacher by training,” said the bespectacled Siyabonga Mahlanga, Gigaba’s special legal counsel. “When you sit with him, he keeps a little black notebook and a ruler. He underlines things. He takes note of everything.”

“Born to a priest and a nurse, my upbringing was both religious and clean,” Gigaba tells me later, a line that sounds like he’s used it a few times.

Keeping things under tight control
He may well be fastidious to a fault. Gigaba has exerted tight control over the parastatals for which he is responsible. Whereas Hogan irked her party seniors by insisting that good governance requires independent boards, Gigaba keeps a close watch. He has instituted a pre-notification process, his team says, so there is forewarning of big expenditure. He has also opposed Trevor Manuel’s National Planning Commission’s proposal to strip him of his power to appoint CEOs of parastatals.

No wonder then that he has been accused of micro-managing his parastatals a la the Chinese model. Gigaba believes that private companies should invest the piles of money they’re sitting on, that businesses should use small black suppliers like his SOEs try to do, and that government can create the jobs we need. But his passionate dedication to the development model currently in vogue with the ANC ignores one troubling fact: the success of such a plan stands and falls on a capable state.

Yet Gigaba’s team is casual about the hue and cry over the so-called developmental role for parastatals, despite the risks involved. “Yes, there may be some inefficiencies at first, but you have to take it on the chin,” says one.

But if South African Airways’ latest request for another government cash injection is anything to go by, our parastatals’ notorious inefficiencies are nothing to sneeze at.

SAA has requested R5.7-billion — in addition to the R1.3-billion it received in 2007-2008 — for growth and expansion, yet its revenue is falling.

Gigaba has defended the move, saying that the national carrier has never been properly capitalised. But according to critics that is the least of the parastatal’s problems.

And yet Gigaba is angling to bring even more parastatals under his control — including the messy behemoth that is the SABC, as well as Telkom. He has been criticised for empire building, but others pointed out the move has been on the cards before his time, and that its good governance to devolve players like SABC and Telkom away from the ministry that formulates the policy that governs the bodies.

The Democratic Alliance’s spokesperson on public enterprises, Natasha Michaels, criticised the lacklustre performance of public enterprises, taking issue with qualified audits and executive pay hikes. But blaming Gigaba, in the position for just 16 months, may be premature.

Critics few and far between
In fact, it’s difficult to find someone with a bad word to say about Gigaba’s work ethic. A senior parastatal executive who should bristle at the level of micro-management under Gigaba — so different from his predecessor — is instead full of praise at the minister’s commitment. “He has his faults but he has done an incredible job of communicating our needs to the rest of government.”

A diplomat who may take issue with the increasing level of state control over parastatals shrugs and says: there is no “right” path, and points out that active shareholderism is not necessarily un-capitalist.

The opposition DA’s spokesperson, Michaels, who should be Gigaba’s biggest critic offered a few hurried lines which she did not substantiate upon request. The DA’s website offers little by way of useful critique, as per their comprehensive alternatives for other ministries. Michaels did note that Gigaba had “consistently avoided attending portfolio committee meetings, and has repeatedly failed to keep the committee updated.” But the chair of the committee in question, Peter Maluleka, called Gigaba a dedicated person who is “meticulous and passionate about his work”.

This month he suspended pay increases for parastatal chief executives and board members until a remuneration policy has been put in place, silencing years of criticism about the issue.

Growing up in KZN
Growing up in the 1970s in Eshowe, KwaZulu-Natal, Gigaba did not become politically aware until his teens. “I don’t want to lie and say I had a working-class background. I did not,” he said frankly, aware that he is operating in a political environment where the young in the party have flaunted their revolutionary roots. “There was always a car at home, food, electricity. We had a relatively comfortable life.”

In a society where absent fathers are common, Gigaba’s was the exception. “My dad would ensure that he would drop us off for the first day of school. By the time he was gone, he knew the principal and the teacher.”

The emphasis on education has remained with Gigaba, yet his schoolmarmish demeanour is combined with a youthful playfulness that has played itself out rather publicly on Twitter, much to his team’s horror. Yet this one “vice”, as his spokesperson Mayihlome Tshwete puts it, has turned out to be a boon in a government and party largely out of touch with the social-media revolution and its effect on governments on this continent in particular.

Gigaba, with his incessant tweets about soccer matches, boring meetings and playful jokes at the expense of his Twitter friends, intuitively understands the medium, which sets him apart from his colleagues in Cabinet.

“Ain’t it always funny when somebody blissfully rests their arms on their pot belly/beer belly/airbag/pouch!” he will tweet, leading his 10 601 followers — at last count — to wonder which colleague had inspired the remark.

His ready availability on the medium has rather endeared him to the country’s middle class, in a party that usually focuses on big rallies. “White people really seem to like him,” a team member tells me wonderingly. Later Gigaba told me of his multiracial upbringing, living on an Anglican mission and “stealing chillies from the Indian guys across the road”.

He is remarkably open with journalists in a climate of mutual suspicion, where government communication channels are slowly being strangled shut.

It was a wonder I was there at all, trailing him around with my notebook. For a journalist to get to follow a minister around for a day with unfettered access to his team is rare enough in South Africa these days. And for him to acquiesce to that request over Twitter is surprising.

The situation was so thoroughly unique that his team take to pranking the staff members I was introduced to, telling them solemnly I was there from THE Mail & Guardian, and gleefully watching their eyes widen in horror. Hysterical laughter would follow the revelation that I was not, in fact, there on a mission to crucify the department in an investigative piece. Some joked I was visiting from the “Blackmail & Guardian”. Others welcomed me, having spotted his tweet earlier that day: “Spending the day with @Verashni at work.”

Gigaba’s Twitter fascination has already been well-documented. His surprise 40th birthday last year was spoilt thanks to one errant tweet from journalist Craig Jacobs.

“Hey hey @mgigaba see you having a bday month!” tweeted Jacobs. “See you at ur party Friday. Sure its gonna be too nice! Whoopdewhoop!”

Later when he arrived at an elegant but relatively modest bash, a wry Gigaba joked: “I am doing my best to act surprised.”

But he was understanding enough, given that he has been prone to some reckless tweets himself. “There are moments where you make mistakes,” he later tells me in his spacious office. He looks down in momentary shame and whispers “Slutwalk” behind his hand.

The popular feminist campaign featured skimpy outfits to rubbish the notion that a woman’s clothes are to blame for sexual assault. Unaware of the context, Gigaba responded to a passing reference to the walk, making the cringe-worthy statement: “Now, I wanna attend as an observer. Might get lucky.” He apologised two hours later when he discovered what the walk was about and came out in support of the movement.

“I’m human,” he tells me. “I’m very self-restrained, but there are those moments when you lose yourself.”

Social media savvy comrade
Thankfully the Slutwalk incident — and a few other storms in a Twitter cup here and there — have not silenced Gigaba’s delightful abandon when it comes to Twitter. Yet his colleagues in the ANC seem to treat it as a guilty pleasure. His spokesperson Mayihlome Tshwete, who sits on a couch opposite us watching the interview, shakes his head mournfully at Gigaba’s Twitter tales, resigned to his boss’s social media fetish.

“He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t go to clubs, he doesn’t party. This is his one vice,” Tshwete tells me later, rather pessimistically. After some prodding he admits that it can be an asset but cautions that it must be managed.

You would think he’d be more concerned about the reports of scandal in the minister’s private life. Yet Gigaba seems to be enjoying unusual favour these days from media and his party alike: allegations of affairs and infidelity have not created much of a stir, playing themselves out mostly in tabloids. This is in marked contrast to his cabinet colleague Fikile Mbalula, also a rising star at 40, who had his extramarital dalliances splashed across mainstream newspapers in what many read as an exercise in mud-smearing.

It helps that Gigaba harks back to an earlier culture of intellectualism in the party and has a few degrees under his belt. Dozens of Economist magazines lie haphazardly on a desk in his office. He finished his teaching degree and immediately enrolled for a master’s degree in social policy, majoring in urban affairs and policy, despite having to run the youth league during the first year of his degree.

He puts it down to the “influence of the times” at the then University of Durban-Westville.

“UDW was the most conducive place to learn. Those guys were constantly debating. We felt just having a junior degree wouldn’t take you anywhere,” he says. “‘Passing is compulsory if you are a comrade,’ we used to say.”

A comrade through and through
And, if anything, a comrade is what Gigaba truly is with his tales of buying ice blocks from Albert Luthuli’s house as a 14 year old and his time serving under Mandela, Mbeki and Zuma. He not only toes the party line, but fervently believes that it has the power to change the country if he can just work hard enough.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better,” he said in a recent speech, quoting late US president, Theodore Roosevelt. “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again.”

Naive? Perhaps. But as an adoring Khulekani Ntshangasi, who has worked with Gigaba for more than 10 years in various departments, said: “He has got age on his side.”

There is time yet for Gigaba to come short again and again, and to keep on trying, regardless of whether Mangaung’s elective conference will deliver him a seat with the top six or not.

“Who knows what could happen in the next 20 years?” says Ntshangasi. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he one day became president of the ANC.”

Follow the tweeting minister @mgigaba
Follow Verashni Pillay @verashni

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