The slow fall of Paul Mashatile is a wonderful case-study in how the post-Polokwane ANC deals with someone it knows is a problem.
He’s a tall, good-looking and gregarious man. But he’s seen as simply too big a spender, too unrepentant when things go wrong. He is also not trusted by those who matter.
It’s been a slow but steady, and no doubt unpleasant fall from grace for Paul Mashatile as he slowly vanishes into the political wilderness. Just a few months ago he had the job he’d always wanted. He was lord of the country’s richest province, Gauteng premier, with his friends in virtually all the posts that mattered. He was chairman of the Gauteng ANC, and had a central role in what had become known as the “Alex Mafia”. He’d been in charge of the province’s finances for several years and projects like the Gauteng Shared Services Centre were working smoothly. Well, working for him, at any rate.
At the outset, it’s important to mention here that Mashatile has not been found guilty of any wrong doing. In fact, no one has actually put any legal claim of any kind against him. But in the ANC, he’s been found guilty, not of backing the wrong horse, but possibly of being corrupt in a way that will be very embarrassing to the party.
Mashatile is a son of Gauteng, someone who got the soil of Alexandra in his bones during his school years. He was a member of Cosas. That’s right, the same Congress of South African Students that Julius Malema led with such distinction, and was a main part of the United Democratic Front. His struggle credentials include a hunger strike, periods of detention and a bomb-attack on his life. After 1990 he was given the task of building up ANC and SACP branches around the country, but particularly in Gauteng. That work may have given him some of the foundations for the support he came to enjoy in the province.
He worked his way up the provincial structures, occupying strategic roles such as provincial secretary and deputy chairman. In the meanwhile he spent much time with people like Kgalema Motlanthe (also from Alex) and Tokyo Sexwale. He became the finance MEC for Gauteng, and was seen as the protégé of Mbhazima Shilowa, then the premier of Gauteng. All of that culminated in his election to the chair of the Gauteng ANC in 2007, just a month before Polokwane.
At the time it was difficult to know which way he would go, Zuma or Mbeki. He was close to Shilowa, who was close to Mbeki. In the end, Gauteng followed its time-honoured pattern of waiting to see who would win before making a decision. It supported Zuma, and he stood to gain as the person who brought that support to the winning side.
When Shilowa resigned as Gauteng premier, there was speculation that Mashatile was only offered the post of premier because otherwise he would have followed Shilowa to Cope (the Congress of the People). In the end, he was offered the post he’d always wanted, and he took it gratefully. Finally, for him, he had what he’d always wanted. Top dog in the province, and, so it seemed, with carte blanche to get involved in some hugely lucrative deals. Not just for him, but for his friends as well. He could enjoy the high life too.
(Bumping into politicians at a hotel opening, where the wine and shooters are flowing is always illuminating. Mashatile arrived at one with Tokyo Sexwale, clearly a junior partner. They’re a sociable pair. Sexwale likes to come over and say hello to a journalist, and introduce himself to the this writer’s wife. Two minutes later the then premier came to say hello, and have a quick drink, shoot the breeze and shake hands with the wife. It was clear he was acting on Sexwale’s strong urging. Sexwale’s been promoted since then, Mashatile hasn’t.)
The Gauteng Shared Services Centre (GSSC) was the symbol of his rise to power. Formulated and created while he was finance MEC, it funnelled all the money paid to provincial departments through one point. (In theory, it is much easier to skim money from one point, than it is to rake it in from diverse ones. You can also do it with fewer people, making it easier to control by appointing your own supporters.)
But the blasted thing simply didn’t work. Suppliers didn’t get their money, and being white, rich and angry, they went to the press. They also publicly withdrew their services, refusing to supply Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital with beds or patients with food. Just as the momentum against the GSSC started to build, the elections were held and Zuma became President.
After defeating Zuma’s clear favourite, Angie Motshegka, Mashatile had carefully ensured that his ANC province backed the right horse at Polokwane, but Zuma still didn’t trust him. Despite the province’s wish for him to be premier, it was forced by the ANC’s own rules to supply three candidates for consideration. In a major shock, Nomvula Mokonyane, the deputy chairperson of the Gauteng ANC, got the job. This could be seen as just a small slap in the face. But the ANC’s National Executive Committee went against its own policy in doing this, as it has a preference for the chairpersons of provinces being the premiers. This policy was agreed at Polokwane precisely because Thabo Mbeki had appointed his own people as premiers going over the heads of the provinces. So this was a properly calculated public slap in the face for Mashatile.
Worse was to come. The following week, Zuma had to appoint his cabinet. While there was some speculation Mashatile may actually get a good job, Zuma had had enough. Whether true or not, the allegations against Mashatile were too embarrassing, and he couldn’t trust him. He was given the least influential position in national government, deputy arts and culture minister (the very same job Winnie Mandela got in 1994). Basically, he has to explain to AfriForum why Pretoria is now Tshwane. To make matters worse, his boss, Lulu Xingwana is a member of the small club of politicians whose reputation is even worse than Mashatile’s.
But Mashatile would have thought he may have a strong power base from which to hit back. As Gauteng chairman, he could, perhaps, try to run things through Mokonyane. But she wasn’t having any of it. Slowly, the provincial party seems to be loosening his grip, and the dreaded GSSC is not as protected as it was. At a recent press conference premier Mokonyane reversed the Gauteng ANC’s position on the GSSC. When the reference was made to the amount of money that had been lost by it, Mashatile laughed, as it was obvious he was the person being directly criticised. It was Mokonyane who told him to keep quiet, kicking him under the table. Little moments like that can tell you all you need to know about where the real political power lies.
So Mashatile is a major problem for the ANC. Although there are investigations into the GSSC as well as his involvement in the events that led to the resignation of Carl Niehaus from the Gauteng Economic Development Agency and, possibly, Blue IQ, there is still no serious charge he faces.
Mashatile’s problem, however, is the same one that faces Zuma – the corruption cloud around him won’t go away easily. One way to dissipate some of it is to ensure he’s seen as acting against those seen to be corrupt. A corrupt president can’t really appoint a corrupt cabinet, while a clean president maybe can. Mashatile has sowed some of the seeds of his own slow political demise, but they’ve been fertilised by what happened to Zuma. We expect his incredible vanishing act to continue, until, like the Cheshire Cat in “Alice in Wonderland”, only his beguiling and enigmatic smile remains.
By Stephen Grootes
(Grootes is an Eye Witness News reporter)
Photo: Jacob Zuma (R), the new head of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress, Winnie Madikizela Mandela (L), the former wife of Nelson Mandela, and Paul Mashatile toast during the celebration of the ANC’s 96th Anniversary in Atteridgeville, Pretoria, January 12, 2008. Thousands of ANC supporters, many wearing Zuma T-shirts, cheered and sang his trademark anti-apartheid guerrilla song “Bring me my machine gun” after Zuma arrived at a sports stadium west of Pretoria. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko