The premier league

The idea that there is powerful “premier league” at work in the ANC has seized the imaginations of many political commentators, but it is unlikely that such a group has ever meaningfully existed.

The premier league purportedly comprises three ANC provincial chairs working in cahoots: Ace Magashule, David Mabuza and Supra Mahumapelo. The three men have part-time day jobs as the premiers of Free State, Mpumalanga and North West.

Since City Press journalists first used the term in August 2015, it has become a staple of political analysis. There can be little doubt that the premiers know one another well, given that they are senior members of the governing party.

Their provinces share some common interests: they are key maize producers; they are poor; and they are quite badly run. The premiers are beneficiaries of the constitution’s “equitable share” provision that allocates a steady stream of income to provinces — no matter how abysmally they perform.

Beyond these facts, however, it is hard to see what might make any supposed premier league stick together rather than fly apart.

Mahumapelo is 10 years younger than his alleged soulmates, and he is in the middle of his first term as provincial premier. He will try to be on the winning side at the ANC’s elective conference in December, to secure national protection for his lifestyle as an “entrepreneur man” (as his provincial government profile entertainingly describes him).

Magashule and Mabuza, in contrast, are coming to the end of their second terms as premiers. The nation’s constitution, in its great wisdom, will not permit them a third. Younger challengers could soon muscle them out of their ANC positions.

All three men would no doubt like to make a leap to national level. But three rural leaders, with quite small delegate counts at their command, cannot all fit into the top six of the ANC. They are all male, in addition, and the leadership must include at least two women. Moreover, they have no obvious skills to contribute as senior national government ministers, and they cannot, in any event, trust promises that may be made to them about appointment to high public office.

No wonder they have started fighting in public. Mabuza and Magashule engaged in a spat about the ANC’s deputy presidency this week. EFF leader Julius Malema has deliberately stirred matters further by touting Mabuza for the ANC deputy presidency.

What can we make of the popularity of the idea of a powerful premier league when the three “great leaders” concerned lack a credible common agenda?

Reporters and columnists have played a part, sometimes using the idea to simplify a more complex and fluid reality. The premier league, for example, allegedly “claimed its first victory” when Bathabile Dlamini trounced front-runner Angie Motshekga to become president of the ANC Women’s League in August 2015.

Motshekga’s supporters reportedly identified the three provincial chairs as the “hidden hands” behind her humiliation. Nevertheless, Dlamini’s strongest support bases were KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo, both outside the supposed premier league.

Whenever the limited raw delegate power of the trio has been remarked on — for example, with regard to the upcoming elective conference in December — it has been suggested that KwaZulu-Natal chair Sihle Zikalala is also “associated with this group” or that President Jacob Zuma’s hidden hand is somehow steering its operations.

Maybe there is an element of truth to some of these assertions. Perhaps the premier league has indeed been one of the more influential informal lobby groups that form, dissolve, and re-form around particular leadership and policy contestations in the ANC.

However, the idea of the league as a small, coherent and powerful cabal is just too good to be true. Who on earth could have been peddling such a notion?

Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan has done a remarkable job portraying himself as the enlightened representative of a wider reformist movement in the ANC. But the anti-incumbency campaign being managed by ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe and others has also needed something to campaign against — in addition, obviously, to Zuma himself.

The South African Communist Party (SACP), which is likely to support Mantashe and Cyril Ramaphosa in the ANC’s December conference, has made a point of singling out the premier league for condemnation. SACP deputy secretary Solly Mapaila recently called on the ANC leadership to “dismantle the faction called the premier league”. (This was a rather impertinent demand, given that the SACP itself is a faction by another name.)

The purported existence of a shadowy, rural, patronage-based grouping has been an exceptionally convenient counterpoint to the modernising, rational and democratic ANC that Mantashe, Ramaphosa, and Gordhan supposedly represent.

Researchers trying to track down where the idea of the premier league originated might do well to begin their investigations with the group’s adversaries, rather than with its supposed members.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town

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