Paul Mashatile’s presidential ambitions

ANTHONY BUTLER: Carcerophobia epidemic may lead to Ramaphosa’s downfall

 Business Day and BusinessLive

23 OCTOBER 2020

Will President Cyril Ramaphosa serve a second term as ANC leader? It is hard to evict an incumbent ANC president after just five years. Indeed the problem, as the careers of Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma demonstrate, is that it is hard to get rid of them even after 10 years.

To remove an entire incumbent faction requires a nationwide coalition and financial and political resources. But what if the challenge comes from within the ANC’s dominant faction itself? There are circumstances in which party leaders might be tempted to replace their president with a younger, less tarnished version who seems more decisive.

SA’s epidemic of carcerophobia — fear of prison — may also play a role. Prosecutions of a few corrupt ANC leaders are essential if electors are to regain faith in the party before 2021’s local government elections. But a small number of scapegoats — such as ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule and former minerals minister Mosebenzi Zwane — may not suffice.

However, if arrests go too far, and especially if they target provincial and regional leaders, the power brokers who manipulate conference votes may start looking for a more sympathetic president. Meanwhile, painful fallout from the Covid-19 crisis, and the failure of economic reform programmes launched by Ramaphosa, could easily drain the leader’s credibility.

If this results in a local election disaster next year, activists could be tempted to blame Ramaphosa and to look for a fresh start before national and provincial elections. It is here where ANC treasurer-general Paul Mashatile steps into the picture. So far he has done a poor job of denying leadership ambitions.

When the Sunday Times recently asked him if he was plotting with deputy president David Mabuza to oust Ramaphosa, he replied: “We will see when the time comes.” ANC observers accustomed to more circumlocutory comments will take that as a “yes”. Mashatile also ventured rather impertinently that Ramaphosa “has never said to me he wants a second term”.

Mashatile might appear a logical choice. His long-term political ally and friend David Mabuza, the obvious alternative, has been in general ill-health, suffering in particular from the incurable medical condition of moral attention deficit disorder. As a former provincial chair, the treasurer-general is sympathetic to how the ANC actually functions on the ground, and he is correspondingly forgiving of corruption.

Mashatile has reached out to trade unions in recent years, and appealed to the “radical economic transformation” crowd by advocating the diversion of public sector pension funds into parastatals. Best of all, he has the same broad power base as Ramaphosa and even served as co-chair of the president’s campaign committee in advance of the Nasrec party elections. Without disturbing their common political coalition, the decisive, younger and more appealing Mashatile could simply jump into Ramaphosa’s shoes.

That’s what his supporters say, in any event, though others have their doubts. He has not performed well as treasurer-general, in which role he has clumsily proposed that the state should pick up the tab for funding parties. He has also reversed his position on prescribed assets in recent weeks, and back-tracked on the idea that the SA Reserve Bank should be nationalised.

Dubbed the “don of the Alex mafia” by the media more than a decade ago, Mashatile’s history as a provincial chair leaves him vulnerable to renewed media scrutiny. The biggest obstacle to the presidential hopeful’s ambitions is startlingly basic. Mashatile and Mabuza together were the great victors at Nasrec, each securing far stronger support from conference delegates than Ramaphosa.

However, the two allies who worked together so effectively are now after the same job. They cannot both be president. This almost certainly means neither of them will be.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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