South Africa: Paul Mashatile has the most to win and lose from ANC’s weekend elective conference

By Carien du Plessis
Posted on Friday, 16 December 2022 07:00

Paul Mashatile, of the African National Congress (ANC), at Parliament in Cape Town in 14 February 2018.

With President Cyril Ramaphosa fairly assured of getting a second term as South Africa's governing African National Congress president at the party's conference this weekend, all eyes are on the man who is in the lead to be his deputy and possible successor - the party's treasurer general Paul Mashatile.

61-year-old Mashatile will go to the opening of the conference on Friday morning (16 December) as the second-most popular person in the party. Ramaphosa received the highest number of branch nominations – a total of 2037 for the position of president – while Mashatile came in at 1791 nominations, for the position of deputy president.

However, they’re not running as a team. In fact, the ANC has been trying to move away from having “slates” of leaders running together for the top six positions because these “slates” have often represented factions, further dividing the party.

Despite his popularity and apparent strength, Mashatile has one big problem: he hasn’t managed to earn the trust of either Ramaphosa’s caucus or his detractors.

Distrusted by both sides

Ramaphosa’s supporters feel that Mashatile is too ambitious, and wants to use the deputy presidential position to step up to become president himself as soon as possible. Ramaphosa has been weakened by allegations that he might have committed a crime by acquiring and storing a large amount of dollars in cash inside a sofa at his Phala Phala game farm. Some say he could resign even before completing his current term, which ends in less than two years.

Party leaders are keenly aware that their electoral support could drop below 50% in the 2024 general elections. This would force the party into an uncomfortable coalition – meaning that whoever leads the party into these elections or the next could be the party’s last president with state power.

… the best route is to challenge for the deputy presidency, knowing that if he gets that post it almost guarantees him to be next in line for the top job.

Mashatile’s ambition has also been revealed in the way he has exploited key vacancies in the party’s top six positions. He has used his acting powers in those positions to his advantage. Party secretary general Ace Magashule was suspended on the back of corruption charges. His deputy, Jessie Duarte, died in July after a long illness, and Mashatile covered for both of them. Key members of Ramaphosa’s caucus have privately – and in a closed-door meeting of the party’s national executive committee meeting – expressed mistrust in the way Mashatile conducted his duties.

Ramaphosa’s detractors, on the other hand, feel that Mashatile has failed to convince his supporters to turn their backs on Ramaphosa and support his main opponent, former health minister Zweli Mkhize.

Mkhize, who received nominations of more than three-quarters of the branches in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal, appeared to have successfully convinced his supporters to throw their weight behind Mashatile. About a third of Mashatile’s nominations came from KwaZulu-Natal – which is also sending the biggest delegation to the party’s conference in Nasrec in Johannesburg. (KwaZulu-Natal can send a total of 877 branch delegates while the second largest province, the Eastern Cape, is only entitled to a total of 684 voting delegates.)

However, in Mashatile’s home province of Gauteng, where he got the highest number of nominations, Mkhize, with just over 60 branch nominations here, fell short of Ramaphosa’s 193 nominations. The business-minded Ramaphosa is favoured in Gauteng, the country’s economic heartland, where he has lived for most of his life.

Mkhize, on the other hand, has failed to attract significant support outside of his home province of KwaZulu-Natal, while Mashatile managed to get substantial nomination numbers from all provinces.

Possible gains in Gauteng?

Last week, Mashatile’s campaign got a boost when the provincial general council – a large gathering of ANC delegates in preparation for the weekend’s conference – in Limpopo declared its support for him in the past week.

Mashatile’s supporters have tried to portray the Gauteng provincial general council on Wednesday as another boost for Mashatile, as they were convinced not to pronounce their support for Ramaphosa, but leave it hanging instead. There is talk that this was due to Mashatile’s campaigning.

Meanwhile, accusations of vote-buying have been traded between the supporters of Ramaphosa and Mkhize. It is illegal in the party to give delegates any kind of compensation for their support.

Uneasy partners

Another possible stumbling block for Mashatile could be the role he is forced to play, ironically as the party’s acting secretary general. He is to communicate disciplinary action to Ramaphosa’s detractors who broke with the party line in Parliament earlier this week.

The party had resolved to vote against an independent report, which found that there was a possible case for impeachment. It also found that Ramaphosa had questions to answer, in connection to the alleged cover-up of the theft of a large sum of dollar bills from Phala Phala.

Four MPs openly broke ranks by voting in favour of the report, which could have started an impeachment process. The four, including Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma – a minister and former and possibly also a current presidential contender – could now face disciplinary action.

Mashatile, however, might need to keep Ramaphosa’s detractors on-side in case those of Ramaphosa’s supporters, who also have been supporting Mashatile, are convinced to vote for someone else.

Ramaphosa’s campaign caucus prefers water and sanitation minister Senzo Mchunu for deputy president. However, it could also decide to support justice minister Ronald Lamola, who has some appeal because of his youth and impressive performance in government. Even so, he only received 427 nominations. Mkhize, in the unlikely event that he fails to get elected as president and strikes a last-minute deal with Ramaphosa, could be in the running for deputy president.

Mashatile has, however, been described in the media as a clever player who is most likely to prevail. The former Gauteng premier and minister of arts and culture is running for deputy president. He is not taking Ramaphosa on directly because his support bases – in Gauteng and Limpopo provinces – overlap with those of Ramaphosa.

“[…] the best route is to challenge for the deputy presidency, knowing that if he gets that post it almost guarantees him to be next in line for the top job,” Sunday Times editor S’thembiso Msomi said last month.

In August, News24 editor and investigative journalist Adriaan Basson wrote that Mashatile could be one of the few candidates “without a cloud of criminality hanging over his head“. Basson reported on some allegations of nepotism against Mashatile when he was a member of the provincial government’s executive council in charge of finance in 2007, but the claims have since faded.

Mashatile should know his fate by Sunday night. He goes into the conference with the numbers, but the question is whether the politics will back him up.

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