ANALYSIS: When smallanyanas keep coming — Mashatile’s star is suddenly not shining so brightly

ANALYSIS: When smallanyanas keep coming — Mashatile’s star is suddenly not shining so brightly

Over the past few months, the power relationship between President Cyril Ramaphosa and Deputy President Paul Mashatile has changed significantly, with Mashatile on the defensive. This is partly because of Mashatile’s poor response to reports about his lifestyle and his inability to manage the fallout.

Just a few months ago, there were claims that Mashatile was preparing to take political power from Ramaphosa, who was involved in “quiet quitting” and had essentially given up on his job.

This was partly because of Ramaphosa’s seeming lack of action, but also because of Mashatile’s endeavours. He had been speaking to business leaders and investors and appeared to be trying to give the impression he was going to be President soon. He has since strongly denied any attempt to take power and has stressed his loyalty to Ramaphosa and the ANC.

At the same time, from an objective point of view, Ramaphosa is now in what should be a moment of weakness.

This week’s interestingly timed release of the SA Reserve Bank finding that he had not contravened foreign exchange regulations in the Phala Phala scandal because the transaction had not been “perfected” should have been an important moment for anyone wanting to take over from Ramaphosa.

Especially since the SA Reserve Bank’s statement was deliberately cryptic (there has been much public criticism of the finding, but at least one financial surveillance expert, Raymond Paola, has said it is correct because the question hinges on whether the transaction was completed, and whether Ramaphosa was therefore “entitled” to the money).

Read more in Daily Maverick: Ramaphosa’s Farmgate scandal – a timeline of what we know (and don’t know) so far

While Ramaphosa has been absolved by the SA Reserve Bank and the acting Public Protector, there are still so many questions about the dollars — reportedly between $580,000 and $600,000 — stolen from a sofa at his Phala Phala farm. His version, as submitted to the parliamentary panel investigating the issue, does not make sense. And, as Rise Mzansi leader Songezo Zibi has pointed out, this explanation simply cannot be true.

Damning claims against Mashatile

Despite that, there is no sign of Mashatile’s star rising again. The claims made against him by News24’s reporting about his lifestyle were damning. There are recurring themes of “young women” and the frequent use of properties owned by people who have benefited from government contracts.

There may be more of these reports and perhaps even visual proofs to come.

Mashatile and those around him have not responded credibly to these claims.

Mashatile has granted several interviews to websites and newspapers, in which he has alleged that there is a “plot” against him.

However, Ramaphosa has denied this and Mashatile has been unable to provide any evidence of a plot to tarnish his reputation and oust him.

This has placed Mashatile in a difficult position as he is unable to manoeuvre away from his own claims. And because Ramaphosa has so strongly denied the claims, it’s difficult for any ANC leader to publicly support Mashatile.

The Deputy President and his associates have made at least two serious mistakes.

The first was by the group of people known for many years as the Alex Mafia.

This group includes Mashatile, the businessperson Mike Maile, his brother Lebogang Maile, who is the Gauteng human settlements MEC, Keith Khoza and Bridgman Sithole.

In what must have been the most misjudged political move of recent times, they went to court to ask a judge to prevent News24 from referring to them as the “Alex Mafia”.

While some in the group may have felt genuinely aggrieved at the use of the phrase, the application was always doomed to fail. The name has been used for many years; they have never objected to it before and there was no attempt to prevent other media organisations from using it.

But worse than that, the application kept the story in the media and could be used to suggest that they were trying to bully a news organisation to stop the truth from being published.

Politically and PR-wise it was a disaster.

‘Stop harassing me’

But worse was to come.

Last week, News24 published a report that their journalist Kyle Cowan had been verbally abused by Lebogang Maile.

Cowan had phoned Maile for an update on a promised independent investigation into a series of loans made by the Gauteng provincial government to relatives of Mashatile. Mashatile lives in a property owned by these relatives.

Instead of answering Cowan’s questions, Maile referred to him as a “stupid white man” and said, “No, no, no, no, shut up, shut up. Didn’t I tell you I had appointed the GPF [Gauteng Partnership Fund] to deal with this thing? Stop harassing me. Once they give me the report I will f***ing give you the report.”

While it is not known what state of mind Maile was in when he took the call, this still shows a shocking inability to manage a press inquiry. From any point of view, it is entirely the wrong response.

Not only is it prejudiced and insulting, but it suggests that Maile and by extension, Mashatile, are feeling under pressure.

It may force Maile’s boss in government, Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi, to take action against him, particularly because of the racial nature of the verbal abuse he hurled at Cowan.

Certainly, it is the kind of comment that leaves Mashatile and Maile wide open for criticism by their opponents in the ANC.

It shows that Mashatile and his allies have no reliable strategy for how to respond to the mounting claims against them.

In the meantime, despite the Phala Phala developments, Ramaphosa again appears to be in the ascendancy.

The BRICS Summit, and in particular the state visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping, has given him a chance to remind everyone that he is the President.

Mashatile’s main contribution to the BRICS summit so far has been to mollify Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was unhappy at being met only by a Cabinet minister, while Xi was met by Ramaphosa.

While the dynamic between a President and a Deputy President can wax and wane over time, a scandal the size of Phala Phala should be hugely damaging for Ramaphosa. However, Mashatile’s own scandals appear to have weakened him so severely that he is unable to challenge Ramaphosa for power.

One of the most enduring questions of the past six years has been who would take over from Ramaphosa. Last year’s ANC election was supposed to provide closure to that question.

Mashatile’s smallanyana skeletons have reopened it. DM

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