His office on the sixth floor of the provincial legislature building in Kimberley is strikingly unremarkable. There are no portraits of the new premier on the wall and nothing flash or fancy about the place – the desk, strewn with documents and files, is like every other hard-working person’s space. And this is the way Northern Cape premier Zamani Saul wants it.
He’s here to do a job, not splash cash around. There will be no unnecessary red carpet events on his watch, no luxury vehicles for him and his officials and no credit card splurges. His predecessor, Sylvia Lucas, used her state credit card to buy R50 000 worth of fast food during her first 10 weeks in office but Saul is cut from a different cloth. And it’s been getting him plenty of attention.
Ever since the 47-year-old was appointed leader of the country’s largest and poorest province, he has made it clear he’s here to get the job done, not feather his own nest. His administration will be cutting back on all unnecessary expenditure and Saul is leading by example. He brings his own lunch to work, there will be no more luxury five-star hotel stays for him and his administration and when he travels he shops around for deals.
“I’m going to Tanzania next week and I’m using Mango, not SAA,” he says. And he doesn’t need police guards, he adds. In his 11 years as the ANC’s provincial leader he’s never had a death threat and with police in the province stretched thin already, why should he commandeer a valuable resource?
The Northern Cape has the highest rate of unemployed young people and 54% of households are poverty-stricken, with almost 500 000 social grant beneficiaries.
“I can tell you now, you’re in the poorest province,” Saul says.
He has bold plans to get his province on track by pushing every available cent towards improving the lives of his people. First on the agenda was radical cost-cutting measures for government officials: no longer will they live the high life while their constituents scrape by.
He put his money where his mouth was from day one, saving R1 million on the event to mark his state of the province address – there was no red carpet, no fancy décor and the 3 000 guests were served pre-packed food.
“I don’t care what the ministerial handbook says,” Saul says. “We are dedicating every cent to improving lives.”
There’s plenty that keeps the premier awake at night. For instance, construction on a new mental health hospital began in 2007 and was meant to open in 2009 at a cost of R300m. But that project got “messed up”, with a cost overrun of R1,3 billion and only opened in September – a full decade behind schedule.
“We could have built at least three more hospitals with that money,” Saul laments.
Despite all this, he remains hopeful about the challenges facing his province and the country. “We can make a major dent, we just need to be focused.”
Saul is aware that some people are sceptical about his promises and it’s understandable, he says, given the trust deficit between politicians and communities. But he’s quick to add that he’s an old hand at cost-cutting.
“I got R1m to buy a car as [the ANC] provincial secretary, but I used half of it and bought a second-hand car. Because I wasn’t the premier, no one said anything.”
Now that he is premier the headlines are coming – such as when he used the budget for luxury cars for himself and his MECs to buy 27 ambulances instead. The province has also adopted a zero-tolerance approach to corruption.
“If any one of us is caught with our fingers in the cookie jar, we should not expect the ANC to protect us.”
He still believes in the ANC even though the party is riddled with infighting. But, he adds, this isn’t a new phenomenon as the organisation had factional battles since its formation.
“And every time we had leadership that could rise to the occasion. But if the secretary- general [Ace Magashule] and the president continue to speak past each other, South Africans will doubt the capability of this leadership.”
What the ANC needs are leaders that look at the bigger picture and put their own ambitions on the back burner.
“Until then we’re going to continue as a weak organisation and a state that is at war with itself. And that scares the hell out of me.”
High on Saul’s agenda is growing the economy, creating employment and investing in infrastructure. He also has plans to develop his province, which includes setting up Wi-Fi hotspots for greater internet access and introducing robotics and coding at schools.
Saul grew up without any luxury in his life. He was raised by his single mom, Nodayephi, in an informal settlement in Petrusville in the Karoo. His dad, Msitheli, was killed when Saul was just six months old.
“He was working for a road construction company in Mooi River in KwaZulu-Natal when apparently someone came and asked ‘who is Msitheli?’ and he slaughtered him like a beast,” he says.
The family still don’t know why his father’s life was taken and his killer was never found. As Saul grew up, his mom would wake him at 4am to prepare for school and walked him to the school gate every day.
“We always used to be first to arrive – we were there when the caretaker got there to unlock the gate,” he recalls.
His sister recently asked his mom why she insisted on walking them to school.
“She said, ‘I never wanted my children to be like me. I told myself that what apartheid succeeded in doing to me, it won’t succeed with my children’.”
Saul says neither of his parents went to school and “were functionally illiterate”. His mom made a living brewing and selling traditional beer, which often got her in trouble with the authorities.
“In the early hours of the morning police would come to raid our home and arrest her,” Saul says. “She’d go to prison, come back and do it again to put food on the table. She was a fighter.”
Saul was 14 when he became an activist and a member of the student representative body at his high school and his political education continued when he went to study law at the University of the Western Cape. He has a doctorate in law and jurisprudence and is now busy with his doctorate of philosophy in multidisciplinary studies.
Since taking office, life has been hectic, he admits. “On Saturdays, if I don’t have a political programme, I’m sleeping.”
The father of six also enjoys watching movies, but “my biggest addiction is reading”.
Saul has three kids from a previous relationship – Amanda (22), Sindi (20) and Emeka (19) – and three younger children with his wife, Tapsy (47): daughter Kgopi (11), and sons Dag (8) and G’zinn (4).
Tapsy, a senior manager at the department of social development, has been his rock, Saul says.
“My wife is there to close all the loopholes. She knows the Zamani who’s not a premier, which is good.”
When the family has downtime they love to visit his hometown to “catch a breather”. Wherever he goes people approach him for selfies, Saul says with a chuckle – not because he’s the premier, he adds, but because of his resemblance to the singer Seal.
“Even when I was in Brazil I encountered that.”
And he always obliges. After all, he is a man of the people.