South African President Jacob Zuma’s campaign team is keeping a close watch on Paul Shipokosa Mashatile, the chairman of the African National Congress (ANC) in Gauteng Province, the country’s economic hub, and for a good reason.
Tall and muscular, Mashatile is taking a stridently independent line on the party elections due in December, says a retired ANC leader from the Nelson Mandela era. “Look carefully, Paul is doing something that others dare not … he is not only allowing them [ANC members] but encouraging them to express their views.”
In a discussion document ahead of the conference, Mashatile asks: “When and why did leadership transition become a problem for the ANC?” The subtext is clear: why is Zuma stifling the leadership debate?
As the party prepares for leadership elections, Mashatile seems to be building an alliance of activists that will encourage a challenger to Zuma: the likely candidate is deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe, favoured by many factions as an interim figure who could preside over the transfer of leadership to a younger generation.
Should Mashatile succeed, he would have a firm position in the party leadership. Almost automatically, Mashatile’s circle dismisses any such plans, talking up his loyalty to Zuma and his record as a disciplined party man. But these are far from ordinary times, with the party more factionalised than ever.
As a young activist against apartheid, Mashatile rose to prominence when the ANC was unbanned in 1990. Ten years later, aged 37, he was deputy chairman of Gauteng. Nine years later he had secured the chairmanship of the ANC in Gauteng, one of the country’s most powerful political positions.
Mashatile was known as ‘King of the Alex Mafia’, a reference to his reputation in Alexandria township, where he grew up and started organising for the ANC. His opponents accuse him of corruption but have failed to get charges to stick.
Although a senior official in the party, Mashatile has made a slow ascent through the government hierarchy. After the 2009 elections, Zuma appointed loyalist Nomvula Mokonyane as Guateng premier instead of the more independent Mashatile, whom he made deputy arts and culture minister.
Mashatile became arts and culture minister in November 2010. ANC activists backed Mashatile as chairman of the party in Gauteng against Zuma’s efforts to make Mokonyane both provincial premier and party chair.
Mashatile has been astonishingly successful in boosting Gauteng’s ANC membership numbers, which are forecast to hit 200,000 by the December elections. That is just behind KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape.