WHEN Stan Mathabatha was recalled from an ambassadorship post in Europe to take over the premiership of Limpopo six years ago, he was seen and hailed generally as a Saviour for a province bankrupted by corruption scandals, political infighting and internal divisions.
It was July 2013.
The province was battling to shake off the effects of a chaotic period under Cassel Mathale, a close ally of then ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema.
It was said then that Mathale had committed a fatal mistake of throwing his weight behind a campaign to support Kgalema Motlanthe, then Deputy President of the ANC, to stand against Jacob Zuma at the party’s elective conference in Mangaung the previous year.
Deployed to cold and miserable Europe then, Mathabatha, a member of the SACP central committee, was very much not involved in the dog eat dog politics of the province.
He had not been tainted by the factional bickering within the tripartite alliance and boasted strong struggle credentials as a former MK operative and UDF leader.
It was a politically volatile period for any leader to take over the reins.
Internally, the provincial ANC and tripartite alliance was wrecked by bitter divisions between looting brigade that thrived under Mathale and those who felt they had been sidelined in the pillaging frenzy plus party loyalists who wanted a return to order and stability.
On the other hand, a youth brigade that was a remnant of the expelled Malema’s legacy of patronage, intimidation and ruling the province by the proverbial political sword were battling for survival.
Coupled with this were the old lingering tribal, regional and personality politics that have long troubled the province which was born out of an amalgamation of three Bantustan homelands and the former Transvaal Provincial Administration.
Hence, Mathabatha’s appointment by Zuma to replace Mathale was hailed as a new dawn of sorts.
He was viewed as a catalyst to bring back some calm, political stability and unity.
Critically, Mathabatha was regarded as a credible leader who was above the petty squabbles plaguing the province then.
There seemed to exist consensus that he was the right man to restore good governance, adherence to accounting principles, accountability and furthermore, unite the various warring factions.
In fact, his ascendancy to the premiership mirrors exactly that of ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa who took over the reigns of both party and state at the end of what he has termed ‘nine wasted years’ following the demise of his predecessor Zuma.
Following his swearing in after Zuma, whose two terms were marked by endless corruption scandals, grudgingly stepped down in February 2018, Ramaphosa immediately endeared himself to the public under rallying cry of thuma mina.
In the media he was portrayed as a saviour who could bring back hope, restore good governance, deal with endemic corruption and unite the warring factions within the ANC.
But of course, that feeling of hope has since fast evaporated into despair, what with daily reports of corruption, contrasting public statements by leaders of the ANC and declining fortunes of the economy.
The thuma mina euphoria has been replaced by a growing loss of trust in Ramaphosa’s administration and ability to fight corruption, compounded by seeming inaction against crime, the issue of migrants and lack of action against ANC leaders implicated in corruption.
The feeling of despair has even seen hashtags such as #voetsekANC and #voetsekCyril on social media.
Mathabatha too, like Ramaphosa, has now become a target of critics calling for his immediate resignation.
The latest bold statement in this respect has come from the Limpopo branch of the ANC’s alliance partner Cosatu.
In a recent statement following its provincial executive committee meeting, the trade union federation called for Mathabatha to step down, saying they ‘felt he is muted and had diverted from his stance of leading the fight against corruption in the province.’
The union accuses Mathabatha of being ‘either silent or not visible [in cases] such as the assassinations of comrades in Vhembe and Mogalakwena.’
It also accuses him of having ‘abdicated his responsibilities of leading the fight against corruption and uniting the movement.’
They go further to make the stinging accusation that “the Premier has outsourced his leadership and decision making to a faction. The faction has taken over key decision-making processes in both the State and the movement. This has been demonstrated when key decisions by the Premier are known and pronounced by the faction before official announcements. The federation refuses the capture of our provincial government and our movement by a faction.”
The politics playing out in the province mirror in some way those plaguing the party’s NEC, where in recent months cracks have begun to appear between different key figures, exposing a growing anti-Ramaphosa sentiment.
Equally so, Mathabatha has borne the brunt of criticism especially for the party’s handling of the VBS saga.
In August, a formation calling itself the Vhembe Fraternal Organisations (VFO) wrote to the ANC NEC voicing its displeasure over the handling of the VBS issue after the provincial body reinstated executive members Florence Radzilani and Danny Msiza over their involvement in the scandal that led to the collapse of the mutual bank.
Interestingly, the VFO included ANC allies such as SANCO, Contralesa, Cosatu, Samwu, ANC MK Veterans League, ANC MK National Council and other civic and business formations from the Vhembe region where Radzilani hails from and still enjoys some support.
“We have written a detailed submission to the ANC advising that the reinstatement of its leaders or officials who are tainted with allegations of corruption which led to the demise of the VBS Mutual Bank is an insult to our constituencies who are the majority voters of the ANC,” the VFO said in its letter addressed to the ANC’s top six.
In taking up the matter with the mother body these structures, although pledging allegiance to the ANC, could be sending a message they have lost confidence in the provincial party leadership, notably Mathabatha.
Although it could be argued Mathabatha has performed relatively well since taking over Mathale in 2013, his handling of the VBS has exposed a worrying indecisiveness on his part when coming to dealing with corruption.
By firing the seven mayors who violated Public Finance Management Act and treasury regulations in investing public funds in a mutual bank but still retaining them as councillors, the ANC sent a message it is not ready to deal decisively with those implicated in corruption.
While Mathabatha himself has not been implicated in the VBS scandal, he is by association morally guilty as the scandal unfolded under his watch as both party and provincial leader and furthermore, failed to wield the axe on those implicated.
Mathabatha’s handling of the Msiza and Radzilani debacle, allowing them to be reinstated into the party’s ranks and leadership positions after they were forced to step down in the wake of the scandal, sends the message that either he tolerates corruption or knows something the general public doesn’t with regards to VBS and the provincial ANC which he leads.
Just like Ramaphosa who has not personally been implicated in the PPE procurement scandal during the covid-19 lockdown, it is not misplaced for the public or ANC alliance partners to accuse Mathabatha of complicity in corruption if he is not seen to be acting decisively against the scourge.
The Vhembe Fraternal Organisations make a telling statement to the NEC with regards to the VBS scandal: “Once again and on a serious note, we strongly reject the ANC’s decision to reinstate the implicated officials with the contempt it deserves. This decision is an embarrassment to the ANC at the highest level and we call upon the NEC to take serious measures to restore the dignity and integrity of our movement and its leaders.”
This is in tandem to the latest call made by Cosatu which said: “As a matter of fact, the federation is justified to pronounce that we have lost confidence on the ANC Provincial Chairperson and the Premier of the province, comrade Chupu Stanley Mathabatha. We are therefore making a call for him to step down as the Premier of the province. This is a matter that the federation would formally engage its alliance partners for a wayward.”
The provincial ANC, SACP and whatever is left of the Youth League leadership have come out in defence of Mathabatha, although some structures of both the ANC and SACP have expressed dissenting views.
Mathabatha has run somewhat of a steady ship since taking over from Mathale and this is backed up by reports by the Auditor General which have shown a marked improvement in governance within provincial departments.
But maybe he is failing the test when it comes to managing the dynamics of internal politics, where behind the scenes moves are already afoot to find a suitable candidate, preferably a woman comrade, to replace Mathabatha.
Reality is that just like Ramaphosa who was hailed as a messiah of sorts, Mathabatha may be a well-meaning leader with severe limitations when coming to managing party political dynamics.
The old divisions are rearing an ugly head again.
The lust for power is pitting factions against one another.
Although he may have won some battles, this is however proof that the troubles afflicting both the ANC and its alliances in Limpopo, just like the party is facing nationally, are beyond the power of any individual whether hailed as a messiah or saviour.
(COMPILED BY INSIDE POLITICS STAFF)