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All you needed to know about Mathews Phosa (but never remembered to ask)

All you needed to know about Mathews Phosa (but never remembered to ask)

He is the ANC’s treasurer general and a quiet businessman. That’s the simple answer. The more complex one is that this former premier of Mpumalanga is the model ANC man with deep struggle roots, who pottered about in the provinces and then rode the wave that washed Thabo Mbeki out to become one of the top six officials. Now, his uneasy alliance with Jacob Zuma is over. By SIPHO HLONGWANE.

On Tuesday, a press statement issued in the name of Gwede Mantashe drew attention to comments by the treasurer general Mathews Phosa. It seemed an odd move because Phosa’s comments had not generated any debate in the public space. Thanks to Mantashe’s attentions, they have now.

What did Phosa say that was so controversial? Besides levelling a veiled criticism of the government’s decision to annex some provincial departments in Limpopo, he also offered some words of encouragement to the suspended ANCYL leader Julius Malema, assuring him the party did not have “a dustbin for comrades”.

The issue is an explosive one. Firstly, the conduct and subsequent jettisoning of Malema from the ANC has been a matter of great concern. It has divided the party, and there was no greater example of this than when ANCYL supporters and members literally laid siege to Luthuli House, under the impression this would somehow pressure the national officials who had laid charges against Malema to drop the whole thing. It didn’t work.

For the ANC split caused by Malema to manifest itself in the top six was alarming enough for Mantashe to issue a stern, if garbled, warning to Phosa. Having agreed to stand as Malema’s legal representative at his first disciplinary hearing, the treasurer general is seen to be his ally. His words at the weekend helped bolster that image.

It is safe to say that, should Phosa continue favouring Malema (who in all likelihood won’t be in the party at all), he will not be on the Zuma slate come December, if he hasn’t ruined that likelihood already. Phosa’s political career will effectively be dead, unless Zuma pisses off enough people to form a new coalition of the walking wounded.

The difficulty is in trying to analyse what this means for the ANC.

Aubrey Matshiqi, political analyst at the Helen Suzman Foundation, says to understand how Phosa appeared on the Zuma slate, one has to go back to the ANC electoral conference in Mafikeng way back in 1997, when Mbeki was elected as party president. Phosa had tossed his hat into the ring to run for deputy president against Zuma, but then withdrew at the 11th hour.

“We can never really know whether he withdrew from the race in [Mafikeng] because the party did not want to split itself between two camps, or because he sensed that he did not have broad support within the party,” Matshiqi says.

“What we can speculate (about) is that if Phosa didn’t want Jacob Zuma to be deputy president in 1997, he would not have wanted him to be president in 2007. But in politics there are no friends, just common interests. If it is in a politician’s interests to align themselves with someone who is seen to be an enemy, a politician will do that. The calculation Phosa and others made was that Zuma was the vehicle (through which) to consolidate power.”

Matshiqi says the fact that Phosa was elected at Polokwane could have been as a result of his name appearing on the Zuma slate. The treasurer general will have to make a considered choice in Mangaung. If he continues on the path of deteriorating relationships between him and Zuma’s people, he will have to decide whether he has enough broad support to run on his own, or perhaps ally himself with an anti-Zuma coalition that may come out publicly.

“I don’t know the answer to that just yet. The balance of forces is just too difficult to read for now,” Matshiqi says.

Phosa does not appear to have broad appeal within the ANC, and that can be attributed to his character as an ANC man who made his way to the top thanks to strong, regional support.

The treasurer general’s biggest splash in the party was in the 1980s and 1990s. Trained as a lawyer, he was one of the party members instrumental in convincing King Sobhuza II of Swaziland not to accept the apartheid regime’s offer to give him the kaNgwane and Ngwavuma districts. Phosa was also the top MK leader, operating out of Mozambique in his native Eastern Transvaal (now Mpumalanga) in the 80s, and was one of the first ANC leaders sent into South Africa to negotiate with the National Party when the ANC was unbanned.

As head of the ANC’s legal department, he often engaged in highly entertaining tussles with the minister of law and order Hernus Kriel over issues such as the joint investigation by the South African Police and the ANC into the death of Chris Hani. 

As a reward for his work, Phosa became the first premier of Mpumalanga in 1994, and that has been the centre of his power ever since. In 1997 he was elected a member of the ANC national executive committee. From 1999 until 2007, he was mostly involved in business, holding directorships in various companies. He was no fan of Mbeki and was even suspected of plotting against him with Tokyo Sexwale and Cyril Ramaphosa.

At the Polokwane conference in 2007, Phosa appeared on the Zuma slate for the post of treasurer general. His rival for the post was then deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, a staunch ally of Mbeki, which pretty much guaranteed that Phosa would win the position.

The ANC put Phosa’s negotiation skills to the test once again in October 2008 when he was delegated to try to broker a deal between the ANC and Mosiuoa Lekota, who was threatening to form his own splinter party. Phosa’s efforts to stave off a split failed.

In his role as treasurer general, Phosa has been very successful. He has made the party a lot of money, the evidence being that it has been flush with cash for every election campaign since 2008, not to mention the centenary celebrations for 2012.

Phosa speaks nine languages, and is fluent in Afrikaans. He is somewhat less famous for having published a volume of Afrikaans poems called Deur die oog van ‘n naald (Through the eye of a needle). He once said of his proficiency in written Afrikaans: “I still find it ironic – and at times it was painfully uncomfortable for me – that even in the most difficult times I wrote poetry in Afrikaans, and expressed my deepest pain in it.” Nevertheless, the ANC has always pushed him to the fore when it needed to lobby Afrikaans people.

Freedom Front Plus leader Pieter Mulder said of Phosa, “[He] is one of the ANC leaders with the best understanding of the cultural issues of Afrikaners”.

The Malema comments are not the first time that Mantashe and Phosa have clashed in a big way. The first and far bigger clash was when it emerged that Chancellor House, the investment wing of the ANC, owned a 25% stake in Hitachi Power Africa, which was contracted to supply boilers to Eskom for power plants. This is wildly problematic for several reasons. It was naked profiteering off power by the ANC, and the World Bank and International Monetary Fund would not have appreciated that one bit.

There was the quote from Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, who said, “If it is true, then God help us all.”

Mantashe was adamant that the Hitachi stake should not be sold. Phosa, along with Barbara Hogan and Pravin Gordhan (people who know what they’re talking about, one might say) were just as adamant that the shares needed to be offloaded. The treasurer general even accused the secretary general of knowing nothing about business.

There appears to be no love lost between Phosa and Mantashe.

What is more puzzling is Phosa’s alliance with Malema. The ANCYL leader has been inseparable from the issue of nationalisation of mines ever since he took power. Phosa holds key positions in several companies, including non-executive chairmanship of the Alliance Mining Corporation, deputy chairman of Jubilee Platinum, non-executive chairman of Braemore Resources and a director of Hans Merensky Holdings. These are mining companies. Feel free to wrinkle your brow in puzzlement.

The most sensible explanation for all of this is that Phosa has calculated he has the sort of broad support that earns him the luxury of sticking his neck out against Zuma months before anyone else dares do the same. It’s a hell of a gamble.

It’s easy to dismiss Phosa’s chances in Mangaung in the face of Zuma’s resurgence. Also, rumour would have it that the anti-Zuma faction currently favours Trevor Manuel (who has the necessary political and financial credentials) for the position of treasurer general. Things could still change, though. Phosa’s name keeps appearing on a list of ringleaders in the alleged anti-Zuma “guerrilla army”. And obviously, Phosa is one of very few people in the ANC – perhaps the only one – who could cause a proper stink by blowing the lid off the ANC’s questionable investments.

Phosa is one of few top leaders in the ANC who have taken public gambles against Zuma, and are not nicknamed Juju. What happens to him could well tell us how things are faring for the ANC president. Man to watch, Phosa is. DM

Read more:

  • Mathews Phosa: another one bites the Mantashian dust in Daily Maverick;
  • Mantashe vs Phosa: the genie’s out the bottle in Daily Maverick.

Photo: Mathews Phosa (Mail & Guardian)


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