The talented Mr Mashatile

Andrew Donaldson writes on the man poised to succeed President Ramaphosa


ACCORDING to a recent news report, Cyril Ramaphosa believes it is “silly” for anyone to suggest that the ANC is not going to triumph in next year’s general elections. 

He was addressing delegates at the party’s Western Cape elective conference on Sunday and was, in fact, so confident of victory that he wasn’t even considering the possibility of a coalition government. This, of course, as the ANC continues its by-election losing streak, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal. 

The man could be right. Thirty years of misrule, ineptitude, corruption, mismanagement and cadre deployment will probably be forgotten as the country trundles off to the polls and votes to keep the criminal elite in power for another five years.

But aside from that dreary outcome, what is more “silly” is the suggestion that Squirrel will see out a second term as party leader. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

It’s may not yet be a “tradition”, as such, but his time in office is certain to be abruptly curtailed like that of his predecessors, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma. As things stand, and such is the fractious nature of the ANC’s internal affairs, there is a possibility that the used cow salesman may not even see out his first term.

Standing by, itching to fill those shoes, is the ambitious Paul Mashatile. The likelihood that he will succeed Squirrel sooner rather than later has stirred the imagination of the regulars here at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”). 

Aside from the anagrammatical properties of his surname (“a lame sh*t”, anyone?), a Mashatile presidency could lift the ruling party out of the tired criminal shabbiness of its past and dump it in the altogether more fresh and bling-stuffed criminal shabbiness of the modern era. No stuffed couches in the cashless 21st century, right?

Put another way, think of the deputy president as a second-rate Tony Soprano. And why not? He does seem to have been living the life of a character in a tacky soap opera. Or, in parlance more familiar to earlier generations of TV viewers, there have been more screwings than the Ewings.

On a more mundane and less sensational level, Mashatile has, in recent weeks, been addressing various gatherings of business leaders, bankers and captains of industry in his role as president-in-waiting. According to the political commentator Carol Paton, these engagements have been tedious affairs. While Mashatile knew which “messages plug in his prepared speeches”, he was rather thin on detail. 

A question-and-answer session at a JSE dinner, for example, “revealed him to be underwhelming and ill-prepared, despite receiving questions in advance. Business leaders felt that crucial questions on energy and SA's relationship with Russia were not dealt with in any depth, leaving the impression that he didn’t really know the detail or wasn’t that bothered.” Paton concludes:

“If Mashatile wants business confidence in his leadership to be any thicker than paper, he will have to raise his game and become more substantial. These are not normal times, and this is not a simple leadership succession. The country is in crisis on multiple fronts and so is the ANC, which is on the trajectory of a long, slow decline. Mashatile needs to demonstrate that somehow he will provide some lift rather than just muddle on as any ordinary ANC politician.”

Mashatile is however not an ordinary ANC politician in that he has been better than most when it comes to jockeying for position within the party. A skilled backroom operator, he has led the ANC in Gauteng for the past decade despite having very little experience in government. His only public role in the province’s affairs was a stint as finance MEC from 2004 to 2008. This was followed by a brief and unremarkable term as arts and culture minister from 2010 to 2014.

He does enjoy, as Paton suggests, “a certain notoriety” in Gauteng, and is known as “the Don of the Alex mafia”, but, and perhaps as a result of his skill in such matters, no substantial evidence of political corruption has yet emerged about him. That however may be about to change.

News24’s investigative journalists have been on his case, as it were, and have published the first in what could be an intriguing series, “Mashatile Unmasked: The secret luxury life and state capture links of a president-in-waiting”. The take-outs so far:

Firstly, Mashatile appears to have “perfected the art of deriving value from assets registered in the names of his friends and benefactors”. That is, his pals in the Alex mafia are taking good care of him. 

Secondly, he is rubbish when it comes to juggling his lovers and it appears that he is a man who is compelled by necessity to take a break from his coterie of girlfriends and lovers in Johannesburg by sleeping with others in Cape Town. News24’s sources have spoken of a lifestyle of booze-fuelled parties with strings of young women in tow — some of whom, it is claimed, have almost come to blows with one another in their bid for Mashatile’s affections. 

It’s very sordid. And, accordingly, we await further developments with some interest.

The spoils of war

Meanwhile, and moving on to international affairs, it does seem that Squirrel and his government owe Yevgeny Prigozhin, the former hot dog vendor turned Russia’s mad dog of war, a massive debt of gratitude. 

It may well be that, as the Sunday Times suggested at the weekend, that Vladimir Putin informed the president that he is willing to skip the Brics summit in Johannesburg in August — thus letting Pretoria off the hook regarding its obligations to the International Criminal Court by arresting the war criminal should he turn up in South Africa. 

Then again, Putin may have made no such offer at all. The Sunday Times was, after all, quoting “a senior government official with intimate knowledge of the [recent] bilateral meeting” in St Petersburg between Squirrel and Putin. Given how senior government officials will lie at the drop of a hat, it’s better not to believe anything they say.

But now, thanks to the weekend’s dramatic but short-lived mutiny by Prigozhin and his mercenaries, it is obvious that Putin won’t be leaving Russia for anywhere in the coming weeks. He’d be a fool if he did.

Commentators on the insurrection that nearly was have been quick to reach for their history books. There is reference to the 1917 revolution and the whiff of regime change that is hanging in the air — although it may be more helpful to reflect on later developments in that part of the world.

It is now clear to all and sundry — Pretoria excepted, of course — that Putin is in something of a jam. His Ukraine territorial grab has backfired horribly, and he’s now facing a dangerous power struggle at home. His ineffectual responses to these twin crises do suggest the reactions of a cornered despot — although not necessarily a weakened one.

As the Prigozhin “episode” has demonstrated, Russia’s ultranationalists are now a considerable threat to Putin. In a leading article, The Times of London recently warned of a possible Stalin-type purge in the days to come, particularly of the Russian military’s officer corps:

“Stalin’s crackdown in the late 1930s had three of five marshals executed or imprisoned, 13 of 15 army commanders, eight of nine admirals and 50 of 57 army commanders. It was a piece of self-harm that crippled the Soviet Union’s early war effort. Putin’s purge is unlikely to be a carbon copy of 1937 but it will address the question: how far have the unchecked activities poisoned the regular army?

The fact that Prigozhin’s fighters were allowed to advance so quickly towards Moscow suggests that the Wagner group has friends and allies in the army, in the GRU military intelligence and the national guard. Their defence that Prigozhin also had a friend in the Kremlin will not be allowed to stand. It will be the president’s hope that cleansing out parts of the armed forces will make the invasion of Ukraine appear a more honourable undertaking…”

This sort of thing would naturally be catnip to Pretoria, the SA Communist Party, the Economic Freedom Fighters and other donkeys trying to pin the tail on “Western imperialists” while ignoring the activities of the Wagner group in African territories. 

According to Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, Prigozhin’s forces will continue their operations in Mali and the Central African Republic despite the “mutiny” at the weekend. The mercenaries are “working there as instructors. This work, of course, will continue,” Lavrov was quoted as telling Russian media on Monday.

Naledi Pandor, meanwhile, has happily been toeing the Kremlin line. The minister of international relations and cooperation has insisted that Pretoria will continue with its attempts to secure a “peace deal” in the region. Speaking to the press after a meeting on Tuesday with her German counterpart, Annalena Baerbock, Pandor sought to play down the significance of Prigozhin’s insurrection in what could be described as another delusional display.

“There is no mutiny,” she was quoted as saying. “There was an attempted mutiny, and that is the language I would use. It will not affect our intention to engage with both Ukraine and Russia. I really doubt that a few, even if it is Wagner, soldiers would have been able to complete that march to Moscow and pose a threat to the established forces there.”

Those “few” soldiers were enough to spark a scramble of oligarchs for their private jets as they sought to escape the capital ahead of the mercenaries’ advance, as well as a reported retreat by Putin from the Kremlin to St Petersburg. Panicky though they may seem, these events are nowhere near as dramatic as the flight from reality in Pretoria.