Out of the shadows, Mashatile now has to fight the harsh glare of the national spotlight
While the ANC is coming under the most intense electoral pressure since the dawn of democracy in SA, it now appears the dynamic between President Cyril Ramaphosa and Deputy President Paul Mashatile is becoming contested.
A second report claiming that Deputy President Paul Mashatile benefits from properties controlled by other people suggests that he may have questions to answer about how he manages his money and how he funds his lifestyle. At the same time, there is evidence that President Cyril Ramaphosa is prepared to be assertive in defending his position against Mashatile’s presumed presidential ambition.
Several weeks ago, there were whispers among the perpetually chattering classes that Mashatile was preparing to somehow take power from Ramaphosa. He was meeting investors and business leaders, and putting out feelers. He had even remarried in what some believed was a bid to redefine his personal image.
Much has changed since then.
First came the original News24 report, suggesting Mashatile had the regular use of luxury properties owned by Edwin Sodi and others who do business with the state. Mashatile angrily denied doing anything wrong and said he had no influence over state contracts.
Then, over the weekend, Mashatile told City Press that there was a “plot to oust” him by August. That led to Ramaphosa telling a press conference on Sunday, “There is no proof or substance of that at all.”
And finally, on Wednesday, News24 published another strong report, alleging that Mashatile lives in a property worth R37-million which is owned by a company controlled by his son and his son-in-law.
To perhaps oversimplify a lengthy report, News24 suggests that Mashatile’s son Thabiso and his son-in-law Nceba Nonkwelo are involved in businesses that have received loans from entities controlled by the Gauteng provincial government. The report also says that in one case their company received a loan from the Gauteng Partnership Fund to build student accommodation, but no building work has been done.
Serious questions to answer
The inference many would draw from this is that two people related to Mashatile profited from a government loan while he is benefitting from their ownership of a luxurious property.
All of this raises serious questions for Mashatile to answer.
Some voters will want to know the source of all of this money. How is it that someone, who claims only to receive a government salary, is able to live in a massive home that includes “an underground, glass-ensconced wine cellar, floor-to-ceiling library, and a swimming pool”? It also has a “fully self-sustainable supply of electricity, water and gas”.
Certainly, plain arithmetic would suggest that Mashatile is not telling the truth when he claims that his salary is his single source of income.
The fact that he feels a response is necessary is probably confirmed by a statement from Lebogang Maile, the Gauteng MEC for human settlements and infrastructure. Maile says that he is ordering an immediate investigation into the money lent by the Gauteng Partnership Fund to Nonkwelo Investments, one of the companies mentioned in the News24 report.
Maile is known to be close to Mashatile. They, along with Maile’s brother Mike Maile and ANC NEC member Nkenke Kekana have long-standing relationships going back many years.
Lebogang Maile must be hoping that this investigation will clear Mashatile of any wrongdoing.
If Mashatile felt last week that he was the victim of a “plot to oust me”, it is likely that he now feels actively persecuted.
Ramaphosa’s robust response
This makes Ramaphosa’s response, during his press conference on Sunday, so interesting.
Firstly, there was the decision by Ramaphosa to take questions at such a forum. Considering there have been claims that he had lost interest in governing, it was a politically assertive act. It showed how much power there is in the presidency, that he is able to dominate the narrative simply through the office he holds.
But also, his statement: “There is just no thought, no plan, no inkling whatsoever that something like that [a plot to remove Mashatile] could be in the works. I would have had to have my own head examined to have a Deputy President appointed and then thereafter remove him, unless the party decides so. There is no proof or substance of that at all,” is assertive in itself. It suggests Ramaphosa believes Mashatile is talking nonsense.
He also said that he had met with Mashatile to discuss this and that he would meet with him again to discuss it.
Some may regard this as a presidential rebuke. It’s not only that Ramaphosa says there is no proof of such a plot, but also that he requires a second discussion with Mashatile about it.
While Mashatile may feel persecuted, the truth could well lie in a different direction.
If what has been reported is true, and the inference drawn from News24’s reporting is correct (that Mashatile benefitted from a government loan through his family), then what is much more likely is that he is finding the glare of the national spotlight very different from the shaded past he enjoyed in Gauteng.
Echoes of Mabuza and Magashule
This may have resonances with what happened to other politicians who moved from the provinces to national leadership.
When David Mabuza was elected deputy leader of the ANC in 2017 based on his political command of Mpumalanga, he made the front page of The New York Times. It carried a detailed report alleging he was responsible for corruption in the education department of that province.
Curiously, he did not issue an outright denial of the claims.
Ace Magashule had a similar experience. He was able to control political events in the Free State, but upon his elevation to the position of ANC secretary-general, journalists focused on his dealings in that province. That reporting and the publication of the book Gangster State, together with much evidence at the Zondo Commission led to him facing criminal charges, followed by his suspension and then expulsion from the party.
This suggests that Mashatile may have benefitted from his political position in Gauteng, but now that he is Deputy President the spotlight is much brighter.
All of this is likely to have an impact on the ANC’s internal dynamics.
Those who support Mashatile and believed he could take over from Ramaphosa in the near future will possibly alter their world-view.
Wherever he’s going, Mashatile will face questions about his money and his lifestyle.
While the life he lives may not be that different from that of Ramaphosa (both appear to not use the government facilities at their disposal, both have access to luxury properties, both may well enjoy uninterrupted electricity, a wine cellar, etc) there is one fundamental difference.
The source of Ramaphosa’s wealth is well known and has been published in company reports for 20 years. While he can still face criticism that he is a plutocrat and lives a life very different from almost all South Africans, there is no question as to where the money came from.
Stains on a supposedly clean reputation
But Mashatile appears to have no public explanation of how his lifestyle is funded.
Also, Mashatile’s allies may have been hoping that the Phala Phala scandal would weaken Ramaphosa fundamentally. While that is still possible, Mashatile himself now has his own scandals to worry about.
It would no longer be a case of replacing one leader damaged by the Phala Phala scandal with another leader with a supposedly clean reputation.
Considering that the leader of a party plays such a critical role in an election campaign and that the ANC will be under more pressure than ever before, it may be harder for someone with questions hanging over his head to take the top job in the ANC.
Of course, a leader with huge questions to answer has been able to take the top job in the ANC before. Jacob Zuma was elected leader and then became SA President, despite a court finding Schabir Shaik guilty of paying him bribe money.
But our society has changed since then. In the wake of the State Capture era, it’s unlikely that voters will accept the argument that someone is “innocent until proven guilty”.
And then there is Mashatile’s major weakness.
The big difference between him and Zuma at this stage is that there is no evidence of a big national constituency that backs him. While, of course, Mashatile has support, without which he would not have been elected to the position of deputy leader of the ANC, there is very little evidence of broad support for him to take the top job.
At least at this point.
In the meantime, Mashatile will have to find a way to counter these reports. If they are not true, he will have to show they are not true. Or actually explain how his lifestyle is funded.
If he fails to do this, he may find it near impossible to create a narrative that helps him become the leader of the ANC and then President of South Africa. DM