Limpopo is up for grabs

It’s been on the cards for a while, but Cassel Mathale is no longer in the provincial ANC leadership.

What’s next for the premier and chairman?

Ousted Limpopo ANC leader Cassel Mathale must have seen it coming last year already.

This probably explains why he unsuccessfully stood for direct election into the ANC national executive committee (NEC) in Mangaung when many provincial chairpersons did the opposite.

The rule is meant to allow provinces to maximise their representation in the NEC, and provincial chairpersons and secretaries are automatically regarded as ex-officio members by virtue of their positions.

The NEC’s recent decision to remove Mathale and his provincial executive committee (PEC) has left the province almost rudderless.

Mathale continues to run his share of the province, the national government runs another, and today’s provincial general council will unveil a stop-gap leadership that will run the party until the permanent provincial leadership is elected no later than December.

The disbandment follows complaints from some branches that Mathale had unilaterally removed some mayors and entrenched divisions within the party.

Even though his official profile on the provincial government website says nothing about his business interests, he is an unapologetic businessman premier.

The property company he co-owns reportedly got more than R520 million in government leases.

He has declared interests in 16 trading companies.

Mathale once told City Press that he saw nothing wrong with his family and friends doing business with his government. “You see, I can do business with government because I have the right to do that.”

Because of his boyish looks and disarming smile, rival politicians describe him as a “charming gentleman”.

A gifted orator with an impeccable dress sense, Mathale is famous for his penchant to veer from his written speeches and wind up speaking for hours on end.

But it is far from certain that Mathale has been dislodged for good.

As was the case in last December’s provincial nominations conference to choose leaders for Mangaung, there is a significant number of branches that back him.

What compounds uncertainty is that Mathale narrowly beat his contender, Dr Joe Phaahla, for the position of chairperson by 82 votes at the 2011 provincial conference.

Even though he was cleared of allegations of vote-rigging, that conference for the first time laid bare the fissures that existed in a province that had previously been perceived as the core of an anti-Zuma bloc in the ANC.

Added to that is also the fact that the “Zuma versus (Deputy President Kgalema) Motlanthe” factor receded with Mangaung.

So it will increasingly become irrelevant as the glue that holds together what has so far been perceived as homogenous factions vying for the control of the province, and the attendant spoils of power.

A Limpopo regional leader told City Press that the anti-Mathale faction was hobbled by disagreements over its choice of candidates for both provincial chairperson and secretary.

The names of Education MEC Dickson Masemola and Phaahla are being touted as possible candidate chairpersons, while provincial Cosatu leader Dan Sebabi and Vhembe regional leader Falaza Mdaka are seen as capable secretaries.

A pro-Mathale and ex-member of the dissolved provincial leadership said: “If we were to go to conference tomorrow, given what has since happened in the ANC, you are likely to see Mathale emerging again.”

But some say Mathale is not interested in coming back, given the widespread unhappiness over the way he has run the province, and would rather wield power through proxies in both the ANC and its government.

That explains why he reportedly offered to step down from premiership in exchange for keeping his seat at Frans Mohlala House, the provincial party headquarters.

While his sympathisers cast him as a victim who is being punished for opposing Zuma’s second term, the fact that Gauteng has been spared the same treatment even though it backed Motlanthe belies such claims.

Zuma is clearly hedging his bets by keeping Mathale as half a premier – as half the provincial government is under national administtration – even though things have fallen apart in the provincial government under his watch.

It would be embarrassing to dislodge the 52-year-old former youth leader from his government perch only to have the majority of branches reaffirming him as their leader at the next provincial conference.

While some might argue that Mathale’s power largely derives from being able to dispense patronage, it is not a given that axing him from government would send him to the wilderness.

His Free State counterpart, Ace Magashule, clung on to power for years during the era of president Thabo Mbeki, despite being snubbed for premiership.

This resulted in Free State premiers who wielded limited power and created what party membership often refers to as “two centres of power”.

The ANC can ill-afford to go to next year’s elections with a divided house in Limpopo, even though it has won overwhelming majorities in successive general elections.

For example, it got slightly more than 85% of the provincial vote in the 2009 poll.

But the perceptions of pervasive graft in Limpopo – which have resulted in the state pressing criminal charges against Malema and his associates – are likely to hurt public confidence in the party.

That will either be a boon for opposition parties, which might capitalise on the disillusioned voters, or it might translate into apathy.

Both scenarios do not augur well for a party that is still entertaining aspirations of being returned to power with a two-thirds majority in Parliament.

So, whatever decision today’s provincial general council takes about interim leadership in Limpopo, restoring public confidence and unity in the party will have to be uppermost in its mind.

Substituting one faction for another is a recipe for continued infighting.

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