Mashatile: ready to roll the dice

By Stephen Grootes 17 October 2011

Towards the end of December 2009 we said that Gauteng ANC leader Paul Mashatile was sinking, fast - that his ship had been capsized by the Zuma Tsunami and that he would continue to take on water. We, well, me really, were wrong. He has manned the pumps, got rid of the excess water and is now steaming ahead. It’s a fascinating case study in the problems of governing the country while being head of the ANC, and of what you can do in ANC politics when you put your mind to it. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

Mashatile was hugely humiliated by the decision of the ANC’s national executive committee in 2009 to not appoint him Gauteng Premier. It was the job that he wanted. And when the tough get pissed off, the tough get plotting. So he’s started to examine other avenues. It seems likely now that he could be a front-runner for the post of ANC chair at the ANC’s elective conference in Mangaung next year, and there seems to be no sign that current chair Baleka Mbete is keen to stay on. She’s been pretty quiet in public of late, and who wants to deal with rowdy young lions anyway?

So how has Mashatile done it? From the public humiliation, to being seen as the coming man?

His first clever calculation was the setting up of the informal caucus of provincial chairs. It was his baby, and thus he was able to lead it. There are many ways of gaining influence, this was one of them. The first public indication of his strength through this move was at last year’s ANC national general council during what is now known as the “storming of the stage”. To cut a long story short, when ANC policy chief Jeff Radebe was reading out the NGC’s policy pronouncements, that well known democrat Julius Malema and a small posse of well-behaved youngsters tried to get on to the stage to stop him. The outcome on the issue of mine nationalisation wasn’t to their liking. Mashatile, tall, strapping, led the provincial chairs on the stage to head him off. It must have been quite a scene. Despite CCTV footage of the incident, the NEC decided to take no action against Malema. Presumably because that would have been detrimental to “party unity”.

But Mashatile would have been seen as the man who saved the ANC’s middle ground from Malema. It’s the kind of incident that people remember. He’s not afraid to put his physical self on the line.

The other smart thing that Mashatile has done is to remain patient. It must have been hugely tempting to force Nomvula Mokonyane, and her secret furniture out of the Gauteng premiership. But he hasn’t, even though he would have the support within the province to do it. The Gauteng ANC gets furious every time a newspaper hints that some such action is afoot, which is probably an indication of how sensitive an issue this is. Mashatile doesn’t want to be seen to be moving against her.

The other part of Mashatile’s cunning plan has been how he’s used his official government office. He’s the minister of arts and culture. One of the biggest news stories of the year so far has been the “Kill the Boer/Dubula Ibhunu” songs – which presumably fall under the remit of “arts and culture”. And what have we heard? A masterful silence. Because whatever Mashatile would have said, would have been disastrous, despite what must have been the temptation to say something. There’s another issue which has gone away. Remember the fuss over the name of our capital? It’s gone away completely. Because again, there’s nothing in it for him. It’s quite simple, really. He is using his office in exactly the opposite way that sports minister Fikile Mbalula is using his. Mbalula needs the noise, the fuss, the razzmatazz. Mashatile needs to keep quiet in his office. And that’s working pretty well for him so far.

For Mashatile to win higher office, he needs to participate in that tricky treacherous game of forming the right alliances. Form the wrong one, pick a losing partner, and you’re gone, back in the waiting room for another five years. It’s clear that Zuma is not really going to play the game for him. It would seem that for Mashatile to get Zuma to back him, he’s going to have to force the president to do so somehow. Zuma wouldn’t want to do it out of his own free will. That’s tricky. So it seems he’s hitching his wagon to Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe  if Keyser Soze does run in the end. Incidentally, both have their political homes in Alexandra, so they have plenty in common.

There are a few tricky obstacles for him to navigate though. He will have to mend his fences with Malema. That seems to have happened. Mashatile appears to be close to one of Malema’s patrons, Limpopo Premier Cassel Mathale. Presumably that wouldn’t happen if Malema and Mashatile couldn’t stand the sight of each other. He will also have to be aware that there are plenty of ways for Zuma to ambush him.

Mashatile does have some distinct advantages. He’s got a firm handle on his political base in Gauteng. That will help. He’s also relatively young, and not afraid of shaking things up in his self-assured way. The fact his province is keen on opening the leadership debate in the ANC is proof of this. That was a ballsy move on his part, because it was always going to be shut down by the NEC. But it showed his hand, and Zuma would not have approved.

He’s also good with the media. While this doesn’t matter too much in provincial politics, it can when it comes to the national stage. He’s one of those politicians who knows that if journalists have been waiting until four in the morning at a provincial conference, it’s just polite to go and give them a tidbit or two. Not everyone is so accommodating. And because most of the national media is centred in Gauteng, his voice and face are seen well outside the province.

But there is a huge risk to his continued political career. The phrase “Alex Mafia”, coined, it seems, by the Mail and Guardian, and then banned in the Gauteng Legislature (which clearly has trouble filling the hours) hangs around him like the whiff of expensive cognac at an ANC Youth League conference. While no one has proven him guilty of wrong-doing, it’s clear there are serious issues in the way he ran the province as finance MEC. Those problems have continued as he’s run it through his ANC office. If he makes more political enemies, surely some of those issues will rise to the surface. It will be in their interests to stir things up a bit. For Mashatile, taking on someone like Zuma directly could be a very high-risk move.

Mashatile has done a masterful job in regaining the political advantage and getting his career back on track. He’s got some time. If he isn’t able to break through into the ANC’s top six this time around, he could try again. But if he does get the position of national chair next year, 2017 could well be a much bigger year for him. DM



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